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Obama's travels carry a touch of blue

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October 13, 2009
— For President Barack Obama, it's almost as if the election campaign never ended. Just look at his travel schedule.

The same states that Obama targeted to win the White House are seeing an awful lot of the president, Vice President Joe Biden and top Cabinet officials. Only this year, the taxpayers are footing the multimillion-dollar tab for the trips, and Obama officials are delivering wheelbarrows of economic stimulus money — also compliments of taxpayers.


An Associated Press review of administration travel records shows that three of every four official trips Obama and his key lieutenants made in his first seven months in office were to the 28 states Obama won. Add trips to Missouri and Montana — both of which Obama narrowly lost — and almost 80 percent of the administration's official domestic travel has been concentrated in states likely to be key to Obama's re-election effort in 2012.


While similar data hasn't been compiled for previous administrations, new presidents traditionally have used official travel to shore up — and add to — their political base. Just look at President George W. Bush.


"When we were trying to build support for key policy initiatives, it made sense for President Bush to travel to states with persuadable citizens," says Scott Stanzel, a former White House spokesman who was the press secretary for Bush's 2004 re-election bid. "That meant visits to 'purple states' where people weren't as likely to already support or oppose the president's plans."


For Obama, the key policy initiative early on was a $787 billion economic stimulus package. While aimed at the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it also gave the new administration a chance to reap political benefits traditionally reserved for lawmakers touting pork-barrel projects back home.


Though insisting that the stimulus legislation include no such "earmarked" congressional projects, Obama, Biden and the Cabinet spent months traveling the country to announce billions of dollars in new federal job-creating money that was going for bridge construction and green-energy projects, and for extended unemployment benefits.


Biden in particular has been the bearer of stimulus good news, making nearly two dozen trips to 14 states to tout the legislation and its impact on local communities.


The vice president has made five stimulus trips just to Pennsylvania, a must-win state in 2008 that never faded from Obama's political planning meetings. All told, administration officials have been to the Keystone state more than three dozen times since January.


Obama spoke last month to the nation's largest labor organization in a packed Pittsburgh ballroom. Days before, Biden was at a Labor Day parade there and praised the reliably Democratic union members. Obama was back a week later, this time to meet with the leaders of the world's 20 largest economies, whom he had invited to the one-time steel city that the White House sees as a barometer of its political standing.


Yes, the White House loves Pittsburgh — and places like it in states that will play a key role in 2012. When Obama visits cities like Cleveland and Columbus, or Detroit and Denver, he gets wall-to-wall coverage in the local press from the time Air Force One lands until it departs, and his poll numbers in the area generally tick upward.


In August, for example, Obama went to Elkhart, Ind., to announce $2.4 billion in stimulus grants for production of electric and hybrid cars. Indiana and Michigan — the two states benefiting the most — both backed Obama in 2008 and will be important politically to him next time.


Colorado, which has shifted from Republican-leaning to Democrat-friendly in recent years, had seen Obama officials 35 times through early August, including Obama's Feb. 17 trip to Denver to sign the stimulus bill into law. Virginia, which gave Obama a surprise victory in 2008 and has one of this year's two governor's races, has gotten 17 visits. Combined, those states have received $8.9 billion from the stimulus bill.


The White House defended the travel as necessary to promote the administration's agenda for the country.


"President Obama and key members of his team have traveled to communities large and small ... to discuss the encouraging impact of the Recovery Act and to reinforce this president's commitment to creating the kind of jobs that will lay a new foundation for America's long-term economic strength," deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.


Earnest said Obama plans to travel this week to Louisiana and Texas, states that Republican Sen. John McCain won in the 2008 election.


Sometimes, the administration's travel has been political as well as personal.


Before joining the Cabinet, many of Obama's appointees were popular figures in their home states — four secretaries most recently were governors, four were members of Congress and Biden was a longtime senator. When they go home to announce a new grant or see a program firsthand, the administration has a spokesman who already has standing.


Energy Secretary Steven Chu, for example, has made California his top destination; the Nobel Prize-winning physicist taught at the University of California, Berkeley, until he joined the administration. Similarly, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shawn Donovan has made New York and Connecticut his top destinations; he was New York's housing chief before being tapped in December.


The AP review of travel costs — some agencies refused to provide costs for security reasons — documented that the taxpayers have paid at least $1.4 million for trips by top administration officials this year, and that doesn't include any costs for trips by Obama and Biden.


It also doesn't include travel costs by the secretaries of Homeland Security, Labor and Justice, whose departments declined to release tallies. Nor does it include the cost of security agents who travel everywhere with officials in the presidential line of succession, or the military aides who are always at their sides. It does, however, reflect the props needed at events, such as sound equipment, oversized U.S. flags, microphones and room rental.


Costs vary widely from trip to trip, and from official to official:


—Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spent $747 to attend a Pullman Porters event in Philadelphia; he took Amtrak for the one-day trip.


—Commerce Secretary Gary Locke spent $8,013 to address the National Conference of State Legislatures, also in Philadelphia, also a one-day trip.


—Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spent $13,194 to meet with the families of Flight 93, the hijacked United Airlines plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001; he returned to Washington that night.


Travel costs, provided voluntarily by the Cabinet agencies at the White House's urging, depend in large degree on the number of staff who accompany high-level officials. For instance, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson took a two-day trip to Tampa, Fla., that cost $10,408, with more than $9,200 attributed to traveling staff. While there, she spoke to the National Association of Black Journalists and announced $95 million in stimulus grants.


When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made a two-day trip to New Hampshire in July, taxpayers picked up the $6,742 tab for the secretary, two aides and a dairy expert. Of that total, $4,467 went to staff costs.



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