Politics & Policy

Obama’s School Vacations

Joplin High School (Joplin, Mo.) graduates applaud President Obama, May 21, 2012.
The president campaigns incessantly for the youth vote on the public dime.

Conservative activist Jason Mattera calls them “Obama zombies.” Vice President Joe Biden calls them “the most incredible group of Americans we have ever, ever, ever produced.”

They call themselves “unemployed,” “disenchanted,” and “frustrated.”

In 2008, President Obama captured 66 percent of voters under 30, compared with only 54 percent for Kerry in 2004.

But in 2012, the administration is finding this cohort a tougher sell. The Associated Press reports that “about 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in 11 years.” Meanwhile, a survey by Twentysomething, Inc., found that 85 percent of college seniors in 2012 planned to move back into their parents’ homes after graduation — a trend reflected in a December 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center that found that 53 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are living, or have lived, with their parents during the last few years.

All of that may explain the Gallup tracking poll’s showing that only 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds approved of Obama in July 2012, a 19-point drop from 2009.

This time around, the administration is no less dependent on young voters, but it will have to court them actively.

According to Generation Opportunity (GO), a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that works with 18- to 29-year-olds, the president and vice president, their wives, and officials from 30 different administration departments and agencies have visited high schools and colleges on taxpayer-funded trips between March 2011 and May 2012. GO documents show 240 separate trips in that 15-month period, in addition to more than 60 commencement addresses. That means an administration official visited some campus every 48 hours during that period. And Generation Opportunity did not review trips prior to March 2011, before which Obama officials may well have been making just as many visits. Young America’s Foundation reports that the president himself has spoken on a high-school or college campus once every twelve days during his presidency.

Paul Conway, president of GO, has served under four presidents; in the Bush administration, he was chief of staff for labor secretary Elaine Chao, and chief of staff for the Office of Personnel Management. In a conversation with NRO, Conway pointed out that the Obama campaign’s current allotment of resources — both personnel and money — being “aimed at a target demographic” is “unprecedented.” It is, he said, “much larger than anything we participated in in previous administrations.”

The most frequent campus visitor is Obama himself, who made 40 trips during the 15 months from March 2011 to May 2012. Department of Education staff made more visits, 49, but they are distributed among several members, including secretary of education Arne Duncan, undersecretary Martha Kanter, and a host of other department officials, from “teaching ambassador fellows” to policy advisers. Joe Biden and Jill Biden have each made more than a dozen campus visits, and the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Homeland Security, have each had officials on a campus about once a month during the 15-month period. When commencement speeches are added, administration officials are on campus at the rate of at least one every 36 hours, and Labor, Transportation, and Health and Human Services are included among those departments that have sponsored more than a dozen campus visits.

There is no piece of legislation, educational initiative, or advocacy issue that justifies such extensive attention to high schools and colleges. Furthermore, a third of the visits from administration officials have been to schools in swing states, where many “official” visits have turned into full-throated campaign stops.

When the president made an “official” (i.e., in his capacity as president) visit to the University of Colorado at Boulder in April, CBS Denver titled its coverage “Obama Hits Campaign Stride on Colorado Visit.” At the University of Albany two weeks later, Obama was busy scolding his political opponents and touting his own record:

Just about every time we put these policies up for a vote, the Republicans in Congress got together and they said no. And it’s worth noting, by the way — this is just a little aside — after there was a recession under Ronald Reagan, government employment went way up. . . . The only time government employment has gone down during a recession has been under me.

But that event, which RNC chairman Reince Priebus said was “of course” a campaign function, was funded by taxpayers.

The debate over “official” versus “political” events causes perennial tension between presidential administrations and political opponents. Democrats accused George W. Bush’s administration of violating official travel rules. In October 2006, in an article titled “Is Bush’s Cabinet Flying Too-Friendly Skies?,” Time magazine accused the administration of sending “Bush cabinet secretaries and top agency officials . . . on cushier and costlier private aircraft at least 125 times to over 300 locations” between 2001 and 2006. Representative Henry Waxman, then the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, claimed the administration had “routinely flaunted” official travel rules, at a taxpayer cost of $1.5 million.

But Conway does not buy the equivalence. The Obama administration’s travel is not aimed at advocating specific legislation (half of the Bush amount was accrued in efforts at touting No Child Left Behind); it involves a massive number of officials, from cabinet secretaries to sub-agency heads; it targets a specific demographic; it disproportionately favors swing states; and the targeted travel has been abnormally high in a non-election year.

The trouble with “official” and “political” travel is that the White House decides which trip is which kind, and “political” activity can occur on an “official” trip — a tactic known as “piggybacking.” Take the president’s mid-June visit to New York City, where he met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to survey the continuing construction of the new World Trade Center towers before spending the night at a posh fundraiser at the home of actress Sarah Jessica Parker: Because of the first event, the administration was able to categorize the visit as “official” travel.

Brendan Doherty, a political-science professor at the United States Naval Academy, says the convoluted travel laws are part of “the president’s permanent campaign,” a concept that has emerged in the past century. “Even on a fully political trip the taxpayer ends up paying part of the bill,” he laments.

The Congressional Research Service sums up the current travel policy this way:

For security and other reasons, the President, Vice President, and First Lady use military aircraft when they travel. The White House generally categorizes the trips as fulfilling either official or political functions. Often, a trip involves both official and political, or unofficial, activities. When a trip is for an official function, the government pays all costs, including per diem (food and lodging), car rentals, and other incidental expenses. When a trip is for political or unofficial purposes, those involved must pay for their own food and lodging and other related expenses, and they must also reimburse the government with the equivalent of the airfare that they would have paid had they used a commercial airline. When a trip involves both official and political activities, a formula determines the amount to be reimbursed for that part of the trip involving political activities. Whether a trip is for official or political purposes, the Air Force pays all operational and other costs incurred by the use of the aircraft.

The formula requires a determination of the percentage of the trip spent on political activity. The campaign must reimburse the government the portion of the trip that is political. For example, if a trip cost $100,000, and 75 percent of the trip’s time was spent in political activity, then the campaign must reimburse the government $75,000.

The problem is that many activities are not easily distinguishable as one type or the other. And that ambiguity have enabled this administration to campaign to young voters over the past year almost entirely at the taxpayers’ expense.

The Obama campaign has already reimbursed the government for $1.5 million in travel expenses — compared to the Bush campaign’s $1.3 million reimbursement for the entire 2004 cycle. By the end of November 2011, the president had logged more events in battleground states than any of his predecessors, all the while rejecting claims that he has used taxpayer funds to campaign in swing states. Either way, with four months still to go until November, the miles — and the costs — will only grow.

And not just on Air Force One. Generation Opportunity’s research shows that administration officials are effectively acting as campaign surrogates, so one should also ask how much of their activity should actually be considered political. For example, as Republican leaders have pointed out, the Obama administration has sent cabinet secretaries on trips that include fundraising. What does this mean for taxpayers?

The effort involved in sending an administration official on a trip beyond the Beltway is astounding. Pre-trip requirements range from briefings and speechwriting to coordination with a scheduling team and policy staff. Advance staff works alongside a security team to handle the extensive logistics of departure and arrival at any destination, all in coordination with regional and local leaders. Most trips, no matter who the “principal” is, transport eight to twenty people, though the president’s entourage can number in the hundreds — and that does not include the vast numbers of staff who plan the trip, arrive in advance, and participate in the post-trip activities, which range from debriefings to thank-you notes and staff-performance assessments.

The precise costs of presidential travel are a carefully guarded secret. When Michelle Obama took a vacation to Spain in 2010, Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog organization, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about the trip’s cost. Only 18 months and a lawsuit later did they receive records from the U.S. Air Force and the Secret Service — and the latter withheld 78 pages of records. (The cost turned out to be $468,000.)

Details about Bush-administration travel expenses have only recently become public. Since the information on the cost of Obama-administration travel is not available — and likely will not be for several years — it is impossible to calculate how much Team Obama might owe American taxpayers if “official” trips were properly labeled “political.”

As the Congressional Research Service observes, whenever the president flies, the Air Force is on the hook for $179,750 an hour to operate the plane (they budget $200 million a year for that expense alone). The government also foots the bill for the president’s security team and extensive support staff constantly at his side.

If even a small portion of the president’s activity time that is labeled official were redesignated political, the costs — airfare reimbursement, staff salaries, food, lodging, and other related expenses — would be sizable. Were the travel of other administration officials to be similarly redesignated, those costs would easily soar into the millions, as the few figures about Bush-era travel available from the Government Accountability Office suggest.

As for other expenditures, what about the costs to the president’s time and attention? Who’s running Washington? Given so many administration officials on the road, and so many Washington employees spending their time in the pre-trip and post-trip work, Conway finds it hard to believe that they “are taking care of policy and investing in [Capitol] Hill relationships.” An article in Politico in May reported that some senior Democratic legislators have gone months without speaking to the president, despite working on looming issues such as student-loan rates. That may well be because the president — not to mention the secretaries of nearly every major department and dozens of other agency officials — are spending their time on the road campaigning rather than in the office governing.

The research backs that up. There is ample reason to believe that the Obama administration has exploited the murkiness of Federal Elections Committee law, if not directly violated it, to shore up a crumbling key demographic group — all at the taxpayers’ expense. The irony is that, had administration officials devoted their time to developing real solutions to the youth-unemployment crisis, they might not need so much time on the road to hunt for votes, the public coffers would be better off, and we would have a government that spends its time governing.

— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review.

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