Official vs. political trips: blurry line, tricky math

New York Times News Service /

Published Apr 22, 2012 at 05:00AM

Mixing policy and politics, President Barack 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 states, New York and California, for campaign money.

And Obama is not the only frequent flier with a re-election agenda. Both Vice President Joe Biden and the first lady, Michelle Obama, are increasingly stumping around the country as the campaign seeks to repeat its fundraising success of 2008 and counter a building wave of GOP cash.

The trips yield a payoff not only in donations — collected at small-crowd, big-dollar events in the sumptuous homes of donors and at small-dollar, big-crowd rallies — 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.’ ”

Since Obama filed for re-election a year ago, he has taken 60 domestic trips, of which 26 included fundraisers, according to Mark Knoller, a White House correspondent for CBS News who for years has compiled such data.

Knoller’s 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).

This week, Obama is scheduled to visit North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado for official addresses on student loans at three campuses, prime territory for his drive to motivate young voters.

Officials at the White House, the 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.

A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, said, “As in other administrations, we follow all rules and regulations to ensure that the DNC or other relevant political committee pays what is required.”