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As The Campaign Hits Cruising Altitude, Critics Again Target Presidential Travel

President Obama boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, en route to Florida, on April 10. Whenever a president runs for re-election, his travel tends to become a political issue.
Cliff Owen
President Obama boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, en route to Florida, on April 10. Whenever a president runs for re-election, his travel tends to become a political issue.

The White House has been fielding questions lately about President Obama's travel — what's official, what's political and whether taxpayers are getting stuck with the bill. It's the same issue that rolls around every time a president runs for re-election.

Take President Obama's trip to Florida earlier this month. It featured an official presidential speech on the economy at Florida Atlantic University. On the same trip, the president hit two fundraisers.

How do you sort that out?

"We go absolutely by the book," White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press briefing last week.

It costs a massive amount — nobody's ever figured out just how massive — to move the president around.

"As in other administrations, including our immediate predecessors, as you know, we follow all the rules and regulations to ensure that the [Democratic National Committee] or other relevant political committee pays what is required for the president or first lady to travel to political events," Carney said.

Dealing with the same issue in 2004, when President George W. Bush was running for a second term, spokesman Scott McClellan told CNN: "If there are political events, they are paid for out of political funds. Official events — obviously, the president of the United States is president 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

"Presidents of both parties in recent administrations have all declared that they carefully follow the law, that they pay the appropriate share as required by the law. And that's absolutely true," says Brendan Doherty, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy. "True, but the law doesn't require that they pay very much."

Doherty — who says these are his opinions, not the Naval Academy's — has written a new book, The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign. He analyzed presidential travel patterns going back to Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

"What I find is that President Obama disproportionately travels to battleground states at about the same rate that George W. Bush did, and that both of them have done so more than their predecessors," Doherty says.

The big-ticket item is Air Force One. Its official price tag — the cost of an hour in the air — has gone from $5,600 in 1982 (for a much smaller plane than today's 747) to $57,000 during the 2004 Bush campaign to $180,000 this year.

That doesn't count the entourage, the second plane — any of that.

Now, Obama's trip to Florida was deemed political, not official, because it had fundraisers on the itinerary.

And for that, there's a formula: The DNC is supposed to reimburse the equivalent of seats on a charter plane for all the political people. Not a chartered 747 the size of Air Force One, but a 737 — not nearly so large.

And where did this formula come from?

Originally from a lawyer in the Carter administration who's now a semi-retired lobbyist: Mike Berman.

He says it was obvious the campaign should be paying something. But at the same time, "the ancillary planes and all those other things that go along with it never were included, because they only have to do with the president being the president."

Politicians like the formula well enough that in 35 years there's been only one real change. Berman had pegged the reimbursements to seats in first class. In 2010, the Federal Election Commission upgraded that to seats on a charter plane.

What does Berman make of the re-election year controversies?

"I make of it that somebody's sitting there figuring out things to complain about — on one side or the other. And gee, this seems like a perfectly good throwaway, and so you pop it."

He says he's reasonably sure that none of this changes any votes.

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Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.