President Obama's trip to Africa starting Wednesday is drawing criticism for its vast expense, estimated at up to $100 million, but presidential travel has become an easy target for critics over the years no matter who is in the White House.
President Bill Clinton was roundly criticized for making his own Africa trip in 1998. The cost of the visit, which was considered excessive at the time, was $42.7 million, according to the Government Accountability Office, and that tabulation didn't include Secret Service expenses.
Clinton's trip to Asia in 2000 was even more expensive, and Clinton was a lame duck then, only months away from leaving office. His Asia visit cost taxpayers $63.5 million. This included not only the expenses for operating Air Force One but for more than 60 other aircraft to transport U.S. personnel and equipment halfway around the world.
Presidential vacations draw particular ire, such as George W. Bush's frequent visits to his Texas ranch, George H.W. Bush's holidays at his Maine estate, and Ronald Reagan's vacations at his California ranch, as I pointed out in my book "Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes."
Obama also has been criticized for his vacations, especially for his visits to Hawaii, where he grew up but where his visits are particularly costly because of the flying distance from Washington.
Dwight Eisenhower was hit with criticism for his frequent holidays to play golf, fish or hunt at various locations, including Augusta, Ga.; Denver; and his farm in Gettysburg, Pa. His trips prompted Democratic National Chairman Paul M. Butler to complain that Ike was a "part-time president" who spent too many weeks away from Washington.
"We say," Butler argued, "that aside from his health, aside from his illness, the president has been absent from the White House more than any other president in the last 24 years." But most Americans didn't begrudge Ike his vacations because they realized that he had heart problems and needed regular breaks from the pressures of his office.
The dilemma for Obama is that today's economically struggling Americans may not be as forgiving when their president incurs big costs for trips that include not only official business but also touristy junkets. Members of Congress and conservative commentators have already made these points, including Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.).
The main problem will be that if Obama looks self indulgent, he will lose credibility as a president who says he is in tune with Middle America.
Obama will be accompanied by his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha. Their trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania runs from Wednesday to July 3.
Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, defended the trip. "I don't think it's in the U.S. interest for the United States to step aside and cede any potential for our country because we don't want to move forward with presidential travel," Rhodes told reporters.
Another White House spokesman said the goal of the trip is to "underscore the commitment to broadening and deepening cooperation between the United States and the people of sub-Saharan Africa to advance regional and global peace and prosperity."
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.