Obama Reneges on Transparency Pledge Over Air Force One
Policy + Politics

Obama Reneges on Transparency Pledge Over Air Force One

The President was using Air Force One for reelection travel more heavily than any predecessor, the Associated Press reported, “wringing maximum political mileage from a perk of office paid for by taxpayers.

That story easily could have been written about Barack Obama, but in fact it concerned former President George W. Bush during his 2004 reelection. While Democratic challenger John Kerry dug into his campaign bank account to charter a plane to traverse the county, Bush often traveled at no cost to his campaign simply by declaring a trip ‘official’ travel rather than ‘political,’  according to the report. 

Even when the White House acknowledged a trip was political, the actual cost to Bush’s reelection campaign was nominal, compared to the hourly cost of flying Air Force One. 

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In fact, there was nothing new about this practice. Presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan have exploited the perk of unfettered access to Air Force One for themselves and their aides, and President Obama is no exception.

According to CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, the unofficial chronicler of presidential travel, Obama has used Air Force One to attend 398 fundraisers since first taking office in January 2009. In May, Obama passed a milestone of 1,000 trips aboard Air Force One – both for official and political business -- although he was lagging behind Bush, who took 1,675 flights on Air Force One during his eight years in office. 

And it’s not cheap.

It currently costs the Air Force $228,288 an hour to fly Air Force One, according to Judicial Watch. Under Federal Election Commission rules, the government must be reimbursed for portions of presidential political travel, although it remains something of a mystery as to precisely how much it costs to transport the president and his entourage and how much the Democratic National Committee or other relevant campaign committees pay back. It is safe to assume this sort of travel arrangement is a bargain for the president and his political party.

Knoller concedes there is nothing out of the ordinary with this practice – except for what he views as the height of presidential hypocrisy. 

As Obama prepared to leave last Thursday for a three–day fundraising swing through California,  Knoller complained online that the White House had repeatedly turned down his requests for a  “breakdown of the costs and an explanation and specific examples” of how the White House calculates how much is paid by taxpayers and how much must be reimbursed.

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Previous administrations dating back to President Bill Clinton have refused to divulge similar information concerning presidential political travel. Yet “the brick wall erected around the information” by Obama’s White House seriously contradicts Obama’s frequently stated commitment to transparency and open government, Knoller argued.

Just last month, Obama declared during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that “Citizens rightly demand more responsiveness, more openness, more transparency, more accountability from their government.” Three years earlier, in remarks to the Open Government Partnership, he said, “We pledge to be more transparent at every level – because more information on government activity should be open, timely, and freely available to the people.”

So what explains this political dishonesty? “Because the White House wishes to spare itself criticism about the high costs to taxpayers of presidential political travel and the minor amounts reimbursed to the government, it ignores – with Mr. Obama’s approval – his publicly stated commitments to openness sand government transparency,” Knoller wrote.

It is more than understandable that Knoller and other journalists covering the White House might get their noses out of joint over this blatant presidential duplicity. But at this late date in the Obama presidency, veteran observers shouldn’t be surprised or outraged over the mismatch between presidential promises and performance. 

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Although Obama campaigned for election in 2008 vowing to create an open, transparent and highly accountable government, this administration has been one of the most insulated and opaque operations in memory. The White House routinely keeps tight control over the release of information by departments and agencies and discourages officials from speaking with reporters except under controlled briefings and presentations.

Literally up until the day of the formal launch of Obamacare last fall, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services refused to acknowledge a myriad of technical problems with the program’s new website.

Americans had no hint of the extent of the government’s monitoring of their telephone calls and internet communications until National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden divulged that information to selected news organization.

Moreover, CNN host Jake Tapper in January declared, "The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers who leaked to journalists ... more than all previous administrations combined." In 2010, apparently for the first time ever, the Obama administration named a journalist in court documents as a probable "co-conspirator" in the release of government secrets, according to the Guardian. And last year, the Justice Department notified the Associated Press that it had seized records for more than 20 AP phone lines – something the president of AP condemned as "a massive and unprecedented intrusion.” 

For sure, refusal to fully disclose the details of the costs of presidential political swings throughout the country aboard Air Force One – and the extent to which the government is reimbursed for those costs – seems like a breach of Obama’s campaign pledge of openness. But it seems relatively small potatoes – even if the costs are in the vicinity of $1 billion -- in light of the many other startling ways in which the administration has failed to honor that pledge.

Finally, as The New York Times noted during Obama’s reelection campaign, the Democratic party “is probably paying more than other presidents have for Air Force One because of a regulatory change in  2010.” Instead of paying back the government on the basis of the cost of first-class commercial airfare, “as presidents had since Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald R. Ford,” reimbursements must now reflect the cost of chartering a 747 aircraft.

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