Waiting on Obama at the tarmac

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Last Monday morning we awoke to news of a pending storm in the Northeast. We were scheduled to fly Tuesday from Portland, Oregon, to New York for Thanksgiving, arriving about the same time as the forecast storm. So my wife swung into action and miraculously got us rerouted on a flight leaving in less than four hours through San Francisco. We tossed our things into our bags, raced to the airport, and caught our flight to San Francisco.

After everyone had boarded the flight from San Francisco to New York, the pilot came on the loudspeaker to advise us that our flight, along with every other departing flight, was on a “gate hold.” The reason, said the pilot somewhat apologetically, was that the President of the United States was departing soon. Presumably incoming flights were circling somewhere above us, also awaiting the president’s departure.

Now I understand that the president is a very important guy and great precaution must be taken to protect him from harm, but I couldn’t help wonder if it wasn’t a bit of overkill to shut down the entire San Francisco airport while Air Force One departed. Why, I asked myself, doesn’t the president fly through some nearby military air base where security is surely a top concern at all times. It is Air Force One, after all.

It seems the president was on a three-day west coast trip, the primary purpose of which was to raise money for the Democratic Party. And by all reports he was very successful – to the tune of about $8 million. But he also attended to the people’s business by giving a couple of speeches, thus assuring that most of the cost of the trip would be paid by taxpayers.

What were the costs of the trip? Well, this information is closely guarded for the same reason our plane was held at the gate – security. The security risks of transparency on the allocation of presidential travel costs are even less obvious to me than the risks of other planes sharing the tarmac with the president’s plane, but that is the world we live in. Just pay your taxes and give way to the president and the vast bureaucracy he oversees.

Although the White House won’t tell us how much this fundraising jaunt cost taxpayers, we can guess with reasonable accuracy. According to the Air Force it costs $181,757 per hour to keep Air Force One in the air. Total flight time from DC to Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles and back to DC is about 13 hours. That comes to $2,362,841. In addition is the cost of flying the presidential motorcade vehicles – by one estimate $216,000 just from DC to Seattle. So there’s another half million, plus hotel and meals for a few dozen White House staff. And then there is local security and the inconvenience and expense of disruptions to travel and commerce at airports and along city streets.

How much of the over $3 million in direct costs did the taxpayers cover? During the George W. Bush administration it was estimated that well over 90 percent of the costs of such fundraising/official business trips were borne by the taxpayer. There is no reason to think anything is different under the Obama administration.

But there is another cost of presidential air travel that President Obama, more than any of his predecessors, ought be attentive to. Something in the neighborhood of 800-900 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted by a Boeing 747 during 13 hours of flight. And, yes, presidents do travel in a 747, and have done so since the first Bush administration. Before then, Air Force One was a Boeing 707. No doubt there is a security explanation for the upgrade, although it does seem a bit over the top to send one guy across the country in a plane built to carry 400 to 500 people.

As we sat waiting at the gate for news that the president was safely in the air and on his way to Los Angeles to round up another couple million for the Democrats, I couldn’t help but think that we were experiencing the imperial presidency first hand. I doubt that it even occurred to the president that he was inconveniencing thousands of people, as he had at SeaTac and on the streets of Seattle and San Francisco.

So what’s a little inconvenience? Not much, I suppose. But it does seem to be of a piece with the much more dangerous exercise of executive discretion that has led this president to pursue his agenda with a whatever-it-takes philosophy. The citizens can wait, as can the Constitution and the rule of law.