The disclosure that President Obama made a fundraising call from Air Force One while returning from a recent trip to Colorado focused attention again on the legal tightrope any president has to walk while running for reelection and still wielding the many White House perks at his disposal. His aides were quick to point out that a special phone had been installed on the presidential aircraft for such political uses. But the call came as Republicans were already howling at what they see as a blurring of the line.
Their complaints were at their loudest earlier this year when Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office alleging that the president is fraudulently billing the government for blatantly political travel. But if Priebus hoped to stall the Democratic campaign, there is no sign of Obama tempering his use of Air Force One since Priebus ran to the GAO on April 25. In the 79 days since that complaint, the president has flown to 17 states. In only one of those states — Missouri, where the president gave a high school commencement address in Joplin on May 21 — was there no political flavor to the visit. In the others, fundraisers and openly partisan events dominated the schedule. And the itinerary closely matches the 2012 political map. He has gone to New York four times and three times each to closely contested Ohio and contribution-rich California and Illinois. He also has gone twice each to the politically pivotal states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada.
That Obama has been undeterred by the GOP complaints can be no surprise to even the most devout Republican, given the fate of similar complaints raised against Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush when they ran for second terms. Additionally, Priebus had to know that the GAO would ignore his complaint. “We do our audit work at the request of Congress, so we wouldn’t start such an investigation without a congressional request,” noted Chuck Young, managing director of public affairs for GAO.
But campaign officials don’t need a GAO investigation to make them aware of the need to juggle campaign and official duties, if only to avoid embarrassing news stories if they do something stupid — such as make fundraising calls on government phones. “I think we are well within the parameters of what’s been done before, and we’re well within the parameters of what’s appropriate,” Obama senior campaign strategist David Axelrod told National Journal this week, adding, “I don’t think there’s a serious issue here.” The campaign has been taking it very seriously, though, going to lengths to separate campaign officials from White House officials on trips and following new, tougher guidelines on billing that have the Obama campaign paying more than earlier presidential campaigns.
Until 2010, political passengers on Air Force One were billed the equivalent of first-class airfare for the legs they traveled. Starting in 2010, though, a new 2009 Federal Election Commission rule took effect. Now, if there is any political activity on a trip, the campaign must reimburse all travel there for what it would cost to charter a Boeing 737 for the trip. There is a formula based on the number of political travelers on Air Force One. The exact numbers are impossible to get, but it is clear Obama’s campaign will be paying more than George W. Bush’s campaign did in 2004, the last time the issue was raised.
Veterans of past campaigns and past White Houses said one reason the issue never gets past the complaint stage is that all recent presidents have been very careful to follow the rules. Mike Berman, a Democratic lobbyist who is an intimate of former Vice President Walter Mondale, has advised several Democratic presidents on the rules. He even authored the first-class airfare rule that lasted until 2010. “Nobody wants to screw around,” he told National Journal. “Everybody uses good lawyers and good systems. And since we started doing this in 1976, everybody has actually really wanted to do the right thing because when you figure out what you’d save by screwing around with the rules, it’s really nothing. Definitely not worth it.”
Berman also said any incentive to cheat was eliminated when Obama as a candidate in 2008 decided not to accept public financing and the spending limitations that went with that. “In the public-financing days, you had to be more careful because there was a limit on how much you could spend on the campaign,” he said. “That ended … in 2008. So you don’t have a reason to push the edge and risk a bad story because there is plenty of money.”
Les Francis was deputy chief of staff to President Carter and worked on Carter’s campaign. He calls efforts to juggle the political and official use of Air Force One “a full-employment act for campaign finance accountants and lawyers.” He said the president’s campaign was acutely aware that this was more than just a legal question. “There also is political exposure if you don’t handle it right,” he said. “We always knew that it would not take much to mislead or have the public misunderstand.” But Francis said that no one in any White House would deny that there is some political advantage to having their candidate sweep into town aboard Air Force One. “There are certain advantages that go with incumbency and this is one of them,” he said.
He learned that lesson early on, recalling a trip to the airport in San Francisco with his “rock-ribbed Republican” parents in 1951. His father, he said, was “vehemently anti-Truman.” But when he learned that the president’s plane (then called Independence and not yet dubbed Air Force One) was about to land, he insisted on the whole family staying to watch a piece of history. “There is a political benefit to that airplane,” Francis said. “It flies into town and everybody pays attention and even the most rabid opponents or cynics say how impressive Air Force One is. It represents the office and the power and the prestige of the office. And some of that transfers to the guy whose plane it temporarily is.”