When President Obama travels to Texas later this month to help dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, he will spend the night before at a fundraiser in Dallas, a move that significantly cuts the cost of the travel for the Democratic Party as it builds its 2014 campaign war chest.
The first couple will be on hand for the grand opening ceremony for the Bush library the following day along with four other living presidents expected to attend.
If Mr. Obama were heading to Texas solely to raise funds for his party, it would be deemed a “political” trip and the DNC would be forced to pick up the tab for his Air Force One travel. But because Mr. Obama is attending the Bush library opening in an official capacity, federal election law allows his campaign to pay for at least some of the travel at a fraction of the cost — the equivalent of flying aboard a chartered 737 jet.
The president used this provision in election law to piggyback major fundraisers onto official trips during his re-election campaign, despite a series of negative press articles about the practice. His move to add a partisan event to a clearly bipartisan display of respect for his Oval Office predecessor is his boldest use yet of mixed travel benefit.
Figuring out the details of how much the Obama campaign and the DNC must reimburse taxpayers for the mixed trips is complicated and opaque, confounding presidential scholars and federal election law analysts alike.
Brendan J. Doherty, a political-science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign,” has been unable to figure out the cost of presidential campaign travel for Mr. Obama, as well as the presidents that preceded him, because the formula isn’t publicly available and the White House has done little to clarify it.
Whenever there’s official travel coupled with fundraising, the taxpayer foots most of the bill, Mr. Doherty said.
“The law mandates that taxpayers pick up most of the cost of fundraising travel since the president is always on the job no matter where he is or what else he is doing,” he said.
The event is Mr. Obama’s third fundraiser for Democrats’ 2014 election efforts. He appeared at two others last week in California’s Silicon Valley, and has agreed to headline 10 more for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, seven of which will be outside of Washington, D.C.
Since President Reagan’s time in office, federal candidates’ campaign expenses have dramatically increased as candidates have increasingly relied on expensive television ads to deliver their message to voters.
“Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have devoted themselves to fundraising for fellow party members in their second term, even though each president would never be on the ballot again,” Mr. Doherty said.
The White House hasn’t commented on the Texas fundraiser, but deputy press secretary Josh Earnest last month said Mr. Obama’s fundraising this year is part of his duties as president and isn’t in conflict with his outreach to Republicans on key agenda items, such as immigration reform and budget matters.
“The president has some responsibilities, as the head of the Democratic Party, to support other Democrats. I don’t think that’s particularly surprising,” he said.