President Barack Obama is drawing fire for a recent "date night" with his wife in New York City and for a family vacation in Europe. Complainers similarly have harassed previous presidents about the cost to taxpayers of such private outings, and those commanders in chief, like Obama so far, largely ignored them.
Each time, the political damage has appeared minimal. Most Americans seem to agree that presidents need massive security and other support when they travel, and they have the right to get out of Washington fairly often.
Ronald Reagan frequently flew cross-country on Air Force One to his beloved California ranch, where he could chop wood and clear brush. There just was not enough physical labor, he said, at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland's mountains, a short helicopter ride northward from the White House.
Bill Clinton traveled at taxpayer expense to cushy vacation spots like Park City, Utah; Amelia Island, Florida; and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Absentee commander in chief?
George W. Bush spent 490 days as president at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and 487 days at Camp David — one-third of his eight-year presidency — according to avid record-keeper Mark Knoller of CBS News. Bush worked during much of that time, but critics still called him an absentee commander in chief.
His father, while president, similarly shrugged off complaints about his frequent trips to the family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine. In times of war and recession, he defended his right to recharge his presidential batteries by fishing, playing golf, pitching horseshoes and racing his speedboat, far from Washington.
Conservative commentators and Republican officials took swipes at Obama last month when he and his wife, Michelle, took a small military jet and a smattering of aides, security agents and journalists to New York City for dinner and a play, then a quick flight home.
"As President Obama prepares to wing into Manhattan's theater district on Air Force One to take in a Broadway show, GM is preparing to file bankruptcy and families across America continue to struggle to pay their bills," said the Republican National Committee.
More grumbling ensued when Obama capped a recent four-nation trip with some Paris sightseeing with his wife and their two daughters, including a stop at Notre-Dame Cathedral. The girls and the first lady lingered after the president left, visiting the Eiffel Tower and other spots.
Presidents are husbands and fathers
Not all Republicans agree with the RNC's complaints.
"There should be no criticism of presidents making occasional personal travel," said Tony Fratto, who was a spokesman for President George W. Bush. Presidents also are "husbands and fathers," he said, "and the pace and pressure of the job are incredible."
No matter the trip's purpose, Fratto said, a president must be accompanied by "the necessary amount of security, staff support and communications infrastructure."
Because Washington has numerous restaurants and theaters, he said, the Obamas "probably did open themselves up for criticism by making the trip to New York as an exclusive escape from the White House." Had it been tacked on to an official trip there, he said, little fuss would have followed.
Critics mainly cite the high price of using presidential airplanes, although exact costs are hard to obtain, and many less-visible costs also are involved. The White House, wanting to avoid a no-win debate, offers no cost figures on presidential trips.
Any military plane carrying the president is designated Air Force One, including the relatively small Gulfstream that Obama and his wife took to Manhattan last month. Most people, however, think of Air Force One as the massive, highly reconfigured Boeing 747, which the military calls a VC-25.
The Pentagon says it cost $100,219 per hour to fly the plane, without Obama aboard, for a recent, much-criticized photo opportunity over New York City.
Presidential travel requires much more spending. The president's armored limousine (and its double) must be transferred in advance to the designation, where Secret Service agents may have spent days making preparations. Numerous presidential, military and security aides go with the president, and they must be housed, fed and paid. (Journalists go, too, but they pay their own way.)
Security and communications posts must be built in places a president often visits, such as Bush's ranch in Crawford.
Local police departments and other officials bear the cost of helping with security, shutting off roads for motorcades and other tasks. The public cost and inconvenience of temporarily closing highways and airports, sometimes causing massive delays, cannot be known.
Heavily subsidized presidential travel has a long tradition. Every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed in the swanky, four-bedroom presidential suite at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria, the hotel claimed in 1981. That is where Ronald Reagan relaxed with his wife two months after becoming president.
Campaign reimbursements required
News accounts said the Republican National Committee paid for the weekend stay, because Reagan's trip was mostly political. But the RNC almost surely covered only a fraction of the full cost of carrying the president and his entourage on the 600-mile (965-kilometer round trip) from Washington to New York and back.
Federal law requires a political campaign to reimburse the government only for the equivalent of a first-class air fare for each political traveler when the president campaigns for someone else.
Mike McCurry, who was Clinton's White House press secretary, says Americans generally are comfortable with the traditions of presidential travel.
"We have some good precedents on how presidents can vacation," he said. "They take the necessary business with them, but they keep the extras at a minimum. I think President Obama got it just right."
While some critics complained of Obama's free time in Paris, reporters there asked why he left so little time for sightseeing.
"I have a very tough schedule," Obama replied. "I would love nothing more than to have a leisurely week in Paris, stroll down the Seine, take my wife out to a nice meal, have a picnic in Luxembourg Gardens."
"Those days are over," he said wistfully, "for the moment."