Criticism of costly presidential trips hasn't deterred Barack Obama from setting a pace to establish a new White House travel record, even as the sequester continues to impose across-the-board cuts in federal spending.
“If the president travels in his second term at the same pace he did throughout the first, he will have spent 190 days abroad during his time in the Oval Office,” a recent study by the National Taxpayers Union concluded. “That would put him behind only George W. Bush and Bill Clinton as the most-traveled two-term presidents.”
From March 1 -- when the sequester began -- through the president's August vacation at Martha's Vineyard, the president flew to 32 destinations aboard Air Force One, according to the schedule on WhiteHouse.gov.
The five months before the sequester -- October 2012 to February 2013 -- Obama traveled to 46 locations. However, 31 of those trips were before the Nov. 6 presidential election, a time when "candidate" Obama routinely stumped in as many as four cities in one day.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave as they board Air Force One before departing Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. (Getty Images)
So after adjusting for election-related trips, Obama didn't change the amount of travel during the five months of sequester so far, and even picked up the pace in one month. In the months before the sequester kicked in, he had five post-election trips in November 2012, three in December 2012, one in January and six in February. During the months of the sequester, Obama took 10 flights aboard Air Force One during June, the most of any month. He took four trips in the months of March, April and August and five trips in the months of May and July.
The sequester travel includes trips abroad through the Middle East, Central America, Europe and Africa.
“With four trips abroad over 18 days through the first six months of 2013, Obama is on pace to set the record for the most travel in a fifth year in office,” the study by the National Taxpayers Union said. “If that precedent continues, he will be among the most-traveled U.S. chief executives in history by the time he leaves office.”
The 32 trips Obama took since the sequester began compares to 41 destinations, including Europe and Central America, that the president visited in the same period of 2011 (the last year before his election-related travel began).
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, traveled to 24 destinations aboard Air Force One from March 1 through Aug. 12, 2005, the first year of his second term. He took three foreign visits, one in April to the Vatican for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, another in May visiting Eastern Europe to mark the anniversary of the 1945 Yalta accords, then for the G8 meeting in Scotland in July.
Flying Air Force One Costs $179,750 per Hour
With an estimated operational cost of $179,750 per hour, according to a Congressional Research Service report from May 2012, the overall cost for the flights alone from March 1 to Aug. 10 would have been $28.7 million. That does not include other aspects of presidential travel such as security, cargo planes accompanying Air Force One and lodging.
Meanwhile, critics of costly presidential travel point out that the sequester imposed 3 percent across-the-board federal spending cuts that prompted furloughs of government workers, canceled White House tours, and even complaints of lack of air conditioning.
Before taking vacation, Obama spoke numerous times about doing away with sequestration blaming Republicans in Congress. He said at a speech in Chattanooga, Tenn., “Instead of reducing our deficits with a scalpel to get rid of programs we don't need but keep vital investments that we do – you know, this same group has kept in place this meat cleaver called the sequester that is just slashing all kinds of important investments in education and research and our military.” The flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Chattanooga and back cost taxpayers $449,375, based on the CRS estimated cost per hour.
During the sequester, according to the White House schedule, Obama took four extended travels abroad: A four day trip through the Middle East where he visited Israel and Jordan in March; a three-day trip through Mexico and Costa Rica to discuss Central America trade issues in May; and to the United Kingdom for the G8 meeting followed by a one-day stop Germany in mid-June before a swing through African countries in late June and early July.
Transparency is a longstanding problem for presidential travel, regardless of administration said Michael Tasselmyer, a policy analyst for the National Taxpayers Union, who authored the study in June on presidential travel.
“We recognize that it's part of the job to travel to various parts of the world and various parts of the country,” Tasselmyer told TheBlaze. “However, one of our main findings we ran into is looking into how little data is available to the public. We would like to see more transparency.”
He noted that the actual cost of Air Force One – just one aspect of travel – is the only identified cost.
“Anytime there is a cargo plane following the plane designated as Air Force One carrying the president, that adds just one more layer for the public to go through,” Tasselmyer said.
The Congressional Research Service report from last year also addressed this point.
“When the president travels abroad, several passenger and cargo aircraft accompany Air Force One,” the CRS report says. “When the vice president or first lady make such a trip, a single cargo aircraft accompanies either of them. On domestic trips, a cargo aircraft and a backup aircraft normally accompany only Air Force One. If the president is accompanied by more than 75 assistants and subordinates, including Secret Service staff, an additional passenger aircraft also makes the trip. Sometimes, an additional aircraft accompanies Air Force One to be available to take the President to a second city whose airport cannot accommodate a 747. Finally, in preparation for a trip, whether domestic or foreign, an advance party may make several trips to the destination or destinations that will be visited in order to assure that everything goes as planned.”
The White House did not respond to inquiries from TheBlaze, though a spokesman did say they "will let you know if we have anything on this for you."
Estimating Travel Costs
“Air Force One is the designation given to whatever plane the president is using at the time,” said the Congressional Research Service report from May 2012. “Information provided by the U.S. Air Force in 2012 shows that the cost per hour for the president's 747 (which is designated 'VC-25') is $179,750.”
Based on that, the total cost of all the air travel aboard Air Force One alone since March 1 was $28,773,012.25.
TheBlaze analysis of Obama's travel calculated flight hour estimates based on the time-distance calculator from the website FlightManager.com.
For example, a flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Chicago O'Hare International Airport – a flight Obama took on March 15 to give a speech on energy policy and again on May 29 for a Democratic party fundraiser—is one hour and 25 minutes, which would cost $254,526 one way. A two-hour flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Miami on March 29 to give a speech about infrastructure was $359,500.
The president's trip to Tel Aviv, Israel on March 19 was 11 hours and 20 minutes, which based on government numbers would be just over $2 million. On June 18, the president took a six-hour, 35-minute ride on Air Force One from Washington to Belfast for the G8 meeting, which would cost $1.18 million based on the CRS estimate. The first leg of his African tour, from Andrews Air Force Base to Dakar, Senegal was seven hours and 40 minutes, which would be $1.37 million. After the final leg of the African tour, the 15 hour 10 minute return flight from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Washington would have come at a cost of $2.72 million, based on the CRS cost per hour estimate.
Some of the cost for travel was reimbursed to the U.S. Treasury, based on rules regarding official and unofficial travel adopted in 1982 under the Reagan administration. Unofficial travel is generally for political events, while official travel is anything regarding the president's official duties. The CRS report goes on to say that, “Vacation trips, for example, fall under the official travel category.”
Being a non-election year, only seven of the 32 destinations Obama flew to were directly related to politics. Obama spoke at Democratic Party fundraising events on April 4 in San Francisco, April 24 in Dallas, May 29 in Chicago, June 6 in San Jose, Calif., June 7 in Los Angeles and June 12 in Miami. Before traveling to Miami on June 12, he stumped for Massachusetts Senate candidate Edward Markey in Boston for the state's special election.
“When travel is for political purposes, the president, vice president, and first lady, any assistants accompanying them, are required to reimburse the government the comparable airfare they would have paid had they traveled by commercial airline,” the Congressional Research Service report says. “Certain staff accompanying the, however, such as Secret Service agents, are always considered to be on official travel and all their travel costs are paid by the government.”
The bulk of the travel – exceeding international trips and political stump speeches – were to promote his policies, such as his recent middle class jobs tour through Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arizona and California.
However, a recent Fox News poll found the public wants fewer traveling speeches.
Asked, “What do you think is the best way for President Obama to go about solving the nation’s problems?” only 24 percent of respondents picked “By traveling the country and making speeches about his policies to voters,” while 63 percent chose the option, “By locking himself in a room with Republicans and working out solutions.”
Interestingly, the same poll showed the public was divided 48 percent to 48 percent on the question, “Do you feel President Obama has been working hard enough to deserve taking a summer vacation for a week in August, or not?” The public gave a decisive 82 percent “No” when asked the same thing about Congress.