As Obamas Depart for Vacation, a Closer Look at the Family’s Travel

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -

There was the weekend trip for President Barack Obama and his daughters to New York, including a show and a private museum tour.

The ski trip to Aspen, Colo., for First Lady Michelle Obama in February.

And lots and lots of golf in Florida, Southern California and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Now as the Obama family departs Friday on its annual year-end vacation to Hawaii, new estimates put the price tag of the Obamas’ 2015 trips that are all or largely personal at $11.6 million for travel costs alone, according to the conservative group Judicial Watch, based on federal government records. That brings the overall cost of personal or largely personal travel to at least $70.5 million since Obama took office in 2009, according to the group’s analysis.

The costs of Air Force One and other government planes as well as helicopters, limos and other unique parts of presidential travel often raise questions about the need.

“My gosh, we can’t afford it,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which is pushing for less personal travel and for security changes.

But others call it a necessary part of security and convenience for a commander-in-chief.

“In this environment, I don’t think anyone on either side of the aisle is advocating for them to do less,” said Dave Carney, a White House political director for President George H.W. Bush and a critic of what he called posh Obama vacations. “No one wants to say we need less security and then something happens.”

The White House disputes the travel numbers, saying that some of the trips the group cites include work activities.

Obama’s trip to California in June, for example, included a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco as well as golf in Palm Springs. Michelle Obama’s trip to the United Kingdom and Italy with her mother and daughters that same month included promotion of a girls’ education initiative; participation in the presidential delegation to the World’s Fair and a visit to U.S. military service members.

“The president recognizes that he is president of the United States 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wherever he happens to be,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “We believe the American people would not begrudge their president for taking some downtime with his family around the [end of the year].”

Obama does not take an extraordinary amount of vacation time.

He’s taken 23 vacations spanning all or part of 177 days, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS News White House correspondent who maintains an authoritative record of presidential activities.

By comparison, President George W. Bush at this point in his tenure had made 68 visits to his Texas ranch spanning all or part of 441 days, and 10 visits to his family’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine, spanning all or part of 39 days, according to Knoller.

Criticism of presidential vacations goes back all the way to John Adams, who frequently traveled from the capital to his Massachusetts home, said Brendan J. Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

In the modern era, traveling staff and ever-present telecommunications allow presidents to work even from vacation if they choose.

“Presidents are always on the job,” Doherty said. “They are never truly off the clock.”

The 2015 cost estimates from Judicial Watch primarily include the price for travel for 11 trips to New York City, Aspen, Chicago, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Martha’s Vineyard and Palm City, Fla. It includes last year’s annual trip to Hawaii.

Some trips include the entire family, while other are taken by individual members. Many of the trips of the first lady and daughters, though, are unknown.

In response to series of recent Judicial Watch public records requests, the Air Force revealed that it costs $206,337 per hour to fly and operate the president’s plane, Air Force One. The cost has grown considerably in recent years. In 2012, the Air Force estimated it cost $179,750 per hour, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Other costs are not generally made public, including the cost of housing Secret Service and White House staff, transporting limousines, helicopters and other equipment, rental cars, office space, food, even security upgrades such as adding bulletproof glass and more phone lines.

The first family picks up the tab for housing when they are on vacation. Published reports indicate that the Obamas spend $25,000 per week for their private vacation home in Hawaii and $50,000 a week for their private vacation home, the Blue Heron Farm, on Martha’s Vineyard.

In 2013, the Hawaii Reporter estimated that a 17-day vacation on the islands for the president and his family cost more than $4 million.

Judicial Watch sued the Secret Service last month for failing to respond to 19 public records requests for security-related expenses related to presidential travel.

John Wonderlich, policy director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for openness in government, agrees the administration should release the costs of presidential travel. But he said criticizing Obama for taking the trips is just “a way of creating resentment about the president” when it’s difficult to argue that Obama should cut down on his security or vacation time. “It’s a hard case to make,” he said.

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THE OBAMAS’ PERSONAL TRIPS IN 2015

Jan. 1-3 Family trip to Hawaii.

Feb. 19 President Obama trip to Chicago.

Feb. 14-16 Michelle Obama and daughters ski trip to Aspen, Colo.

Feb. 14-16 President Obama golf outing to Palm Springs, Calif.

March 12 Michelle Obama trip to Los Angeles.

March 12-13 President Obama trip Los Angeles.

March 28-29 President Obama’s golf outing to Palm City, Fla.

June 15-21 First lady Michelle Obama, mother, daughters travel to the United Kingdom and Italy.

June 20-21 President Obama golf outing to Palm Springs, Calif.

July 17-19 Father-daughter weekend in New York.

Aug. 7-23 Family trip to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Source: Judicial Watch, White House