Obama's increased use of that ultimate incumbent perk, Air Force One, raises quadrennial questions.
WASHINGTON - Facing 5,000 enthusiastic students at Florida Atlantic University, President Obama rolled up his sleeves and raised his voice to chastise Republicans for their spending cuts and "broken-down theories," evoking chants of "Four more years!"
And that was the nonpolitical stop on Obama's swing-state itinerary. The president sandwiched the speech, billed as an official address on his so-called Buffett Rule for a minimum tax rate for the wealthiest Americans, amid three overtly partisan fundraisers that accounted for the bulk of his time along the South Florida coast.
Mixing policy and politics, Obama is picking up the pace of his travel with that ultimate incumbent's perk -- unlimited use of Air Force One. The trips are mostly to about a dozen swing states that will decide the election and to two reliably Democratic ones for campaign money.
Vice President Joe Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama also are increasingly stumping around the country as the campaign seeks to counter a building wave of GOP cash.
The trips yield a payoff not only in donations, but also in local headlines trumpeting Obama's message of the day. Taken together, they raise the quadrennial question of how much of a president's travel should be paid for by taxpayers and how much by his party.
"It's very opaque," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group. "You're kind of left in the position of, 'Trust us; we're doing it right.'"
'The campaign will follow all rules'
Since Obama filed for re-election a year ago, he has taken 60 domestic trips, of which 26 included fundraisers, said Mark Knoller, a White House correspondent for CBS News. His count shows that since Obama took office, his most frequent destinations besides Maryland, Virginia and Illinois, his home state, have been fundraising centers and swing states: New York (23 visits), Ohio (20), Florida (16), Pennsylvania (15), Michigan (11), California and North Carolina (10 each), Massachusetts (9), Wisconsin (8), Iowa and Nevada (7 each), and Colorado (6).
Officials at the White House, the Chicago campaign headquarters and the Democratic National Committee declined to say how they decide which events are political and how much to reimburse the government. That secrecy has a tradition dating at least to the late 1970s. Katie Hogan, a campaign spokeswoman, said, "The campaign will follow all rules and pay for the portion of travel that relates to political events, as has been true for previous incumbent presidential candidates."
The Democratic Party is probably paying more than other presidents because of a regulatory change in 2010. Instead of repaying the government based on the cost of first-class commercial airfare, as presidents had since Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford, reimbursements must now reflect the cost of chartering a 737. (Air Force One, the name for whichever plane in the fleet carries the president, is usually a 747.)
Past presidents have been accused of adding official events to political trips to reduce their campaign's spending, but Schultz said that was no longer an issue.
The Democratic Party's latest monthly report of travel reimbursements, filed last week to the Federal Election Commission, had entries like $3.82 for "White House Airlift In-flight services" -- a sandwich perhaps? -- and 23 payments totaling nearly $100,000 for airfare, including $95,759.10 to White House Airlift Operations and $3,833.19 to the Treasury Department.
Striking a balance
Expenses are not limited to Air Force One, which costs $179,750 an hour for "fuel, flight consumables, depot repairs, aircraft overhaul and engine overhaul," the Pentagon said. For years, presidential travel has included at least two other aircraft: a backup plane and a military cargo plane to ferry Secret Service vehicles, helicopters on occasion and the president's limousine.
Michael Berman, who was a lawyer in the Carter White House, said the Ford White House sought to make nearly full reimbursements for campaign-related use of Air Force One. But Berman devised the first-class airfare formulation that both parties used until 2010. "You don't want to penalize the person who's in office," he said, by forcing him to cover all expenses for security, for example. "But they also shouldn't have an advantage."