Spring semester on college campuses across the country has come to end. Rising students will now hopefully head to internships or summer jobs, as graduates fresh off commencement look for employment in a dismal economy. While school may be out, political campaigns will be hot on the trail following President Barack Obama’s reelection "kickoff" last month. But have the president and his administration not already been making their case in partisan presentations on campuses all year, and at the expense of the taxpayer?
Many Republicans believe so; formally complaining at the end of April before the official campaign kickoff that the administration has been participating in political campaigning, not true official travel, at government expense for quite some time.
"On behalf of American taxpayers, I am writing to call your attention to a case of misuse of government funds benefitting 'Obama for America' (OFA), otherwise known as the president’s reelection campaign," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro at the end of April, going on to single out events on April 24 in North Carolina and Colorado where the Republican National Committee chairman asserts that the Obama campaign passed off cheering crowds of college students "widely reported to be equivalent to campaign rallies" as "official" events that happen to be in swing states.
Republicans and watchdog groups have become increasing frustrated with what they see as the administration's lack of adequate distinction between "official travel" and "political travel." Congressional Research Service L. Elaine Halchin writes on the distinctions in presidential travel policy:
Official travel may involve, for example, presenting information; giving direction; and explaining, and securing public support for, Administration policies. Political travel normally involves the President and Vice President in their positions as leaders of their political party. Attending party functions, participating in fundraising, and campaigning for candidates are examples of political activities. The terms are rather general, and the White House determines whether a trip is for official or political purposes, or for a combination of the two. The travel policies of specific Administrations concerning the reimbursement of expenses for unofficial travel generally are not publicly available.
However, the Reagan Administration established written guidelines in 1982 to determine when the President, Vice President, and any assistants accompanying them on military aircraft travel at government expense and when they, or the political organizations on whose behalf they travel, are to reimburse the government with the equivalent of the airfare that they would have had to pay had they traveled on commercial airlines.
The Associated Press has noted that when President George W. Bush was up for reelection in 2004, his campaign and the GOP reimbursed the White House more than $1.3 million for "airlift operations." Since late 2010, a separate Democratic Party "travel offset" account has already paid roughly $1.5 million for similar expenses for President Obama, according to FEC reports. Many suggest more is owed by both the party and reelection campaign.
Responding to Priebus's letter, CNN reports that White House Spokesman Eric Schultz maintained the president's April travel to college campuses was part of his "official responsibility" to leave Washington and hear from citizens about major issues.
“This week’s travel has been part of the President’s official responsibility to get outside of Washington, DC, hear from students, and discuss stopping interest rates on their loans from doubling in July – just like Friday’s trip to Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia to meet with troops, veterans, and military families is likewise part of the President’s official responsibilities. When there is political travel, we follow all rules and regulations that all other Administrations have followed," Schultz said in the statement.
While the White House claims they have played by the rules, new information obtained from Generation Opportunity draws more attention to the continued excess of Obama administration travel to events targeted at younger voters, blurring the line between political campaigning and official business. Analysis from the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to educating and mobilizing young voters on the nation’s economic challenges, finds that since March 2011, the president and/or members of his cabinet and staff have made over 319 visits to colleges and high schools in 44 different states. All of these events were footed by the taxpayer and deserve examination to determine whether each visit was part of the necessary responsibility of office, or have Barack Obama and surrogates been carrying out responsibilities to their party and campaign donors at government expense.
Take for example some of what President Obama had to say in his speech during an official visit to the University of Colorado at the end of April. Speaking to college students on his plan to block a hike in interest rates on federal student loans, the president claimed Republicans oppose it because they say they have to bring down the deficit.
"Now, first of all, these guys ran up the deficit," President Obama said to an enamored crowd. "Remember, these are the same folks who voted in favor of two wars without paying for it, and big tax cuts without paying for it. They just voted to keep billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to big oil companies who are raking in record profits," the president said from the podium during an official visit.
"They just voted to let millionaires and billionaires keep paying low tax rates -- lower tax rates than middle-class workers. They just voted to give an average tax cut of at least $150,000 to the wealthiest Americans -- folks like me who don’t need it, weren’t asking for it. And the way they pay for it is to cut things like education and job training that give students opportunities to work and succeed. So they can’t be too serious about deficits."
In another event that was billed to promote the university's nanocenter as the future of the U.S. economy, President Obama did not hesitate in landing a few blows against Republicans in Congress when speaking at University of Albany NanoCollege on May 8.
"But most of it didn't get done in Congress," the president said of the progress of the jobs bill he sent to Congress last September. "Just about every time we put these policies up for a vote, the Republicans in Congress got together and they said no. They said no to putting hundreds of thousands of construction workers back on the job repairing our roads and our bridges and our schools and our transit systems. No to a new tax cut for businesses that hire new workers. No to putting more teachers back in our classrooms, more cops back on the beat, more firefighters back to work. And this is at a time when we know one of the biggest drags on our economy has been layoffs by state and local governments -- that's true all across the country."
Following these comments RNC Chairman Priebus was quick to appear on Albany's YNN Capital Tonight to claim that the president's appearance was "of course" a campaign event.
"There's no president in American history that has used taxpayer money in order to finance his campaign as this president," said Priebus.
Of the over 300 official travel visits to colleges and high schools over the last 14 months, 27 stops have been in Virginia, 20 in Pennsylvania, 16 in North Carolina 13 in Ohio, 12 in Colorado and 12 in Indiana, all of which are key swing states in the president's reelection strategy this November.
Generation Opportunity President Paul T. Conway tells The Blaze that it is not uncommon for the White House to attempt to bring their message to younger voters on campus, but the daily examples of partisan campaigning at taxpayer expense by this president and his cabinet goes far beyond other administrations, and is unprecedented.
"The over 300 trips do not just represent stops by the president or cabinet secretaries," said Conway, who has served under four administrations, including as Chief of Staff of the United States Department of Labor during the George W. Bush administration. "From press advance to travel staff to security, a big footprint is left behind for the taxpayer."
Conway went to on to add that the frequency of visits by the Obama administration to campuses across the country begs further questioning into what is not happening on behalf of the taxpayer as the president and cabinet officials leave their day jobs to participate in events that blur the line between official business and partisan campaigning.
Below is a graphic assembled by The Blaze illustrating the scope of the administration's taxpayer-funded travels targeting young voters across the country, based on information by Generation Opportunity.
Taxpayer-funded Visits by the President and Administration Officials to Colleges and High Schools March 2011-May2012: