Ask Stacy: Why Should We Pay for Obama’s Vacations?

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With summer vacation time rapidly approaching, I thought this would be a good time to tackle the following vacation-related question from a reader.

Mrs. Obama, her two children and her mother, along with staff and security people, are flying to China in Air Force Two for a vacation that the American taxpayers are paying for. WHY?

The country is going deeper in debt and millions of our dollars are being wasted by our first family for vacations, etc. Why isn’t anything being said about this in the media? What right do they have to waste our money? If they want vacations let them pay for it themselves. I have to pay for mine.

The VA is running out of funds and has to drop programs for vets, yet these people travel around the world on our money. — Harry

Are we paying for the president’s vacation?

Unfortunately, while this question is simple, the answer isn’t.

The president is responsible for vacation-related activities and personal expenses for himself and his family while on vacation. But lest you think that leaves taxpayers off the hook, think again.

Unlike you, me or Harry, the president doesn’t really ever get a true vacation. He and his family are required to travel via military aircraft. He’s also required to travel with sophisticated communications equipment, as well as a complete entourage of advisers and security. And the taxpayers are required to pick up the tab.

He flies on Air Force One, typically a Boeing 747, which reportedly costs the Air Force about $180,000 an hour to operate. And while you and I might visit the rental car counter when we fly somewhere, the president travels with his own armored limousine, known as “The Beast,” as well as other vehicles.

While presidents travel in expensive style, however, they also do something the rest of us try to do: mix a little pleasure into business trips. So if he goes, say, to Moscow for a summit, we’re paying the tab for him, his family, his motorcade and his entourage to get there and stay there. If he stays an extra day for some sightseeing or buys something from a Russian souvenir shop, however, he’s supposed to pay for that himself.

What about Michelle?

This reader is specifically asking about a recent trip Michelle Obama took to China without her husband. According to CBS News, she traveled with her children, Sasha and Malia, as well as her mother, Marian Shields Robinson.

First ladies often travel without their spouses. According to CBS, the purpose of this trip was to enhance our country’s relationship with China:

The highly orchestrated visit is intended to help soften U.S.-China relations. It also includes a number of events with China’s first lady — less than a year after Mrs. Obama missed her visit to the U.S., which some read as a political snub.

But no matter how diplomatic the mission, these trips nearly always include some components of a nice vacation, including fancy digs, dinners and sightseeing, or at least what you and I would consider sightseeing. Those making these trips would probably describe it as respecting the host country by visiting their most impressive sights, as well as by walking among and interacting with their citizens.

Just how much do these trips cost?

According to CBS, the White House refused to disclose the cost of Michelle’s recent China trip, because disclosing costs means revealing too much about the level of security present.

However, we can take comfort in the fact the plane she used wasn’t an Air Force One 747, but an Air Force Two 757 that’s much less expensive. It reportedly costs a mere $12,000 per hour to operate.

But nailing down the exact cost of these planes is more difficult than it might seem. For example, U.S. News & World Report quoted a White House official who took exception to the above figure:

The number stated is misconstrued and out of context. The hourly rate is not the marginal cost of operation [of] the plane — it is an accounting figure that prices in a number of fixed costs from maintaining the Air Force fleet for this kind of plane over a year. … For example, it includes estimated replacement parts, depreciation, repairs, and costs that would have been incurred regardless of this flight.

About one thing, however, there’s no dispute. Each and every presidential trip costs taxpayers more than the typical American family will spend on a lifetime of vacations.

Is it fair?

Harry says, “What right do they have to waste our money? If they want vacations let them pay for it themselves. I have to pay for mine.”

I feel you, Harry.

Being the president comes with many terrifically expensive perks, all supplied by taxpayers. Presidents and their families live in a mansion that comes with a staff of nearly 500 people. (See them all, along with their salaries, here.) They ride in armored limousines and fly in the most sophisticated planes ever built. And whether they’re at home, on the road or on vacation, they’re surrounded by dozens of people, all of whom we pay for.

Whether all this is too extravagant, especially when the economy is slow, depends on your point of view. But perhaps you can take some comfort from the fact that the debate isn’t new, nor is it confined to the Obamas. From The New York Times:

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

Why does the media ignore this?

Harry asks, “Why isn’t anything being said about this in the media?”

The media does say a lot about this, Harry. In fact, I’m wondering how you came across this topic if not from someone in the media. Do a Web search for “the cost of presidential vacations” and you’ll be reading until long after the cows, and the Obamas, come home.

Both the cost and frequency of presidential vacations have been a source of political fodder for decades. Typically you find the most outrage from those opposed to whoever is currently in office. That’s something we can test with this week’s question. Tell me, Harry: Would you by chance be a Republican?

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