When it comes to late-night comedy shows, President Obama is a prolific guest, but taxpayers might not be laughing along with him.
Mr. Obama's televised chat Tuesday on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno in Los Angeles was his 10th appearance on a TV talk show while in office, outpacing all other presidents and hosts since the days of John F. Kennedy and Jack Paar in the early 1960s.
The goal of these appearances is partly to boost the president's image and partly to promote his agenda. Taxpayers foot the bill for Mr. Obama's high-cost travel on Air Force One.
At $180,000 per flight hour to operate the presidential aircraft, the trip cost taxpayers more than $1.8 million just for the flying time to California and back. That doesn't include two 50-minute flights in California on Marine One, the presidential helicopter; or the cost of lodging dozens of White House staffers and Secret Service agents overnight, or the cost of 20-vehicle motorcades at the various stops.
As usual, the White House mixed business with talk show pleasure during the two-day presidential trip. On his way to Los Angeles, Mr. Obama stopped in Phoenix to deliver a speech about the housing industry. He also spoke to Marines at Camp Pendleton in California before flying back to Washington.
The president also made time in Los Angeles for a private dinner Tuesday night with mega-fundraiser Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of the DreamWorks Animation film studio, who raised and donated nearly $10 million for Mr. Obama's re-election effort last year.
"Presidents have often used the resources of their office to communicate their agendas, and in some cases invite legitimate criticism that they're mixing politics with policy," said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.
"Ever since Reagan, for example, presidents have increasingly taken advantage of Air Force One to take mixed-use trips where they deliver some 'official' address at one event while campaigning at others. Despite reimbursement rules for certain costs associated with these trips, taxpayers are usually left to pick up most of the total tab," he said.
Even though Mr. Obama's trip had political elements, analysts on campaign-finance law say there is no legal question about Democratic Party reimbursement to the government because no campaign stops were involved.
"The only place the Federal Election Commission regulations would come into play is if he's actually making a campaign stop," said former FEC Chairman David Mason. "If it's just political in the sense that he's out there campaigning for his political agenda — immigration reform, health care — there's certainly no FEC requirement that anybody else reimburse the White House."
White House aides said the president uses late-night talk shows to reach an audience that doesn't always get its news from traditional sources.
"It's certainly not the first time this president or other presidents or other political leaders have appeared on 'The Tonight Show' or shows like it," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "We're trying to communicate with Americans where they are. And the viewers of late-night shows are not necessarily the readers of newspapers or wire services, or necessarily viewers of cable or broadcast news shows. Some of his more substantive interviews have appeared in nontraditional settings. So you never know what you might get."
But Mr. Obama has done more talk-show appearances than other sitting presidents, appearing six times alone last year during his re-election campaign. First lady Michelle Obama also appeared last year on "Late Night" with Jimmy Fallon and "The View."
Another advantage of the easygoing talk show format is the likelihood of softball questions from the hosts.
"The benefit Obama has by going to Jay Leno is that he's not going to get tough follow-up questions, and he'll get outstanding ratings with lots of media coverage," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "It's an easy decision to make if you're the president. Why would you want to sit down with a Washington reporter when you can do a TV interview that will emphasize his likability?"
The talk show appearances usually require presidential travel, which dovetails with Mr. Obama's status as one of the most-traveled presidents in history. The National Taxpayers Union released a study that found Mr. Obama trails only George H.W. Bush among postwar U.S. leaders in the amount of travel.
"Furthermore, President Obama's tendency to take more trips that are shorter in duration, make him likelier (after adjusting for obvious factors like inflation) to have bigger bills (air travel, security detail, planning) than his predecessors," the NTU report stated.
The watchdog group said the full cost of Mr. Obama's travel is "difficult to pin down" because of "opaque reporting by government sources on such expenses."
"As it stands now, taxpayers are shelling out untold millions with little opportunity for oversight," said study author Michael Tasselmyer. "No matter who is in office, Americans should have the facts they need to have a rational conversation on the merits and affordability of a chief executive's journeys."
While in California on Wednesday, Mr. Obama addressed Marines who have borne the brunt of combat in Afghanistan. He said hard fighting remains but the "core" of al Qaeda is nearly defeated.
"This is still a hard fight," Mr. Obama said. "It's still tough, and we're still needed."
The president, whose claims that al Qaeda is "on the run" are being questioned because of reports of another plot by the terrorist network, said U.S. troops have nearly finished the job in Afghanistan. More than 320 Marines based at Camp Pendleton have been killed in theater.
"Because of you, the 9/11 generation, we are accomplishing what we set out to do," the president said. "The core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the way to defeat. We are going to make sure that Afghanistan is never again a source of attacks against our country."
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