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Travels of the President under scrutiny in an era of belt tightening

CHICAGO >> Perhaps it is nothing more than an accident of timing that as federal workers brace for a summer filled with unpaid furlough days, their leaders are traveling the nation and globe on trips that exude luxury.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama left the White House for two Chicago fundraisers in the hope of helping Democrats retake the House in next year’s elections. The cost of flying aboard Air Force One to his hometown: $180,000 per hour.

The same day the first lady, Michelle Obama, traveled to Massachusetts to lunch with rich donors who had paid up to $37,600 per ticket at the Taj Boston Hotel. The meal included roasted Chilean sea bass with a fricassee of asparagus. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, were in Rio de Janeiro, part of a six-day swing through Latin America to discuss trade and investment, including a stop in Trinidad and Tobago.

For a leader presiding over automatic budget cuts and a slow-moving economic recovery, there are growing political costs to presidential travel. Every move a president makes costs money, and in an era when money is in short supply, that means heightened scrutiny. Vacations are especially touchy.

“The president is asking the people to sacrifice but never himself,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said when he introduced a resolution earlier this year asking Obama to forgo vacations to pay for resuming White House tours cut because of the automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester. “We don’t have a problem with him taking vacations, but it seems petty to close the White House to tours when forgoing one or two out-of-town vacations would easily pay for the cost of keeping it open.”

Bob Dole, the former Republican senator from Kansas, was more blunt when asked generally about Obama’s travels in a rare interview on “Fox News Sunday” this week. “He’s on the road too much,” Dole said.

Almost by definition, Obama lives a life foreign to most Americans, with the big white house and the ushers and chefs and the airplane fueled and ready to go. When he wants a weekend away, he can fly to Florida to golf with Tiger Woods. When his daughters take spring break, they head to Aspen to ski. He winters in Hawaii and summers in Martha’s Vineyard.

But this summer’s trips come as federal employees are tightening their belts. On Friday, four federal agencies closed down – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of Management and Budget – as employees were ordered to take the first of several unpaid days off.

Many workers are canceling summer vacations of their own. Across the government, cutbacks are everywhere. The Blue Angels did not fly at the U.S. Naval Academy commencement, Head Start programs are turning away children and there are no summer jobs for college students to cut the grass at Antietam.

In a nod to the pain that federal employees are feeling, Obama announced in April that he would cut his salary by $20,000.

Despite that gesture of solidarity, the president’s official and political trips still generate second-guessing. This summer he plans a diplomatic foray to Africa that will cost millions of dollars and invariably involve an entourage of hundreds of security, communications, military and technical personnel, just as it did when George W. Bush and Bill Clinton went. White House officials said they are not deterred by fear of criticism, although some said the president would probably avoid safari time.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a group that opposes tax increases, said Obama brought such criticism on himself with a sky-is-falling approach to the sequester, which canceled popular, visible programs seemingly to galvanize the public against sensible budget cuts.

“The cost of every vacation and ’work trip’ is now compared to things he cancels ’due to sequester,’” Norquist said. “And he cannot complain as he started this ’blame-the-sequester, there-is-nothing-to-cut’ narrative.”

White House officials react to such criticism with weariness. Obama arrived in office during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and has been criticized for taxpayer expenses almost from the start. Aides said the public understands that being president costs money and that Obama has official obligations and deserves time off. They dismiss complaints as predictable carping from a party whose leaders enjoy perks of their own, including congressional trips overseas. House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio spends time playing golf and traveling the fundraising circuit.

“Many Republicans in Washington criticize the president because the sun comes up in the morning,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama. “So if that was our litmus test, we couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”

Officials said the White House has pared back because of the sequester. Staff travel, equipment purchases and new hiring have been curtailed. Among those furloughed was the assistant White House chef. And in general, some political and personal expenses are reimbursed to the government according to formulas.

But officials said the vast bulk of Obama’s expenses, including the $179,750-per-hour cost of Air Force One, are simply the price of the presidency and the communications and security required for a 24-hour-a-day commander in chief.

Other presidents have come under fire for vacation habits. Ronald Reagan retreated to his ranch at Santa Barbara, Calif., and Bush to his outside Crawford, Texas. Clinton had no home and, like Obama, favored rental estates on Martha’s Vineyard.

“It’s just a routine part of the Washington gotcha game,” said Joe Hagin, who spent 14 years in the White House working for three Republican presidents, most recently as Bush’s deputy chief of staff. “Democrats played it against President Bush and Republicans are returning the favor. It’s been going on for a long time.”

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