Presidential speeches need presidential venues

Are the thousands of dollars spent on presidential photo opportunities worth it?

by Rania Abuisnaineh

President Barack Obama took a trip to Madison on Wednesday to talk to Wright Middle School about education. He flew into the local airport, was driven to the speech (obviously with a motorcade and other local police security), spoke to about 650 people for 31 minutes and then made it out of town after a grand total of 163 minutes. These numbers are according to the local newspaper, The Wisconsin State Journal, and considering the times, I find them to be a bit upsetting. Whereas in the past, perhaps I would have been pleased and honored that Obama came to my hometown; now, visions of red dollar signs dance in my head. Considering that I am struggling to find more work (as IâÄôm sure many of you are too) and continuing to hear more about the countryâÄôs slip into recession, my political views have undergone a moderate revision. I have always known America to be the richest country in the world, but now things feel as if thatâÄôs not so clear. As money or wealth becomes scarcer and people are forced to cut back, one of the first places this country should look to pinch pennies is with government spending. This cost can be a nonissue, like when the president is going to a foreign country or when he is traveling to make a significant appearance at the Target Center or Metrodome to speak to tens of thousands of Americans. But small trips across the country to speak to less than a thousand people raise red flags. As stated, Obama spoke to less than 700 in Madison. What does it cost the taxpayer for Obama to travel to events like this recent one in Madison? A review of those numbers in the first paragraph fails to express the magnitude of a presidential visit. Again, according to The Wisconsin State Journal, ObamaâÄôs motorcade from the airport included 26 vehicles, and there were an estimated 250 local law officers assisting with security for the visit. Streets had to be closed down for Obama; flights were delayed for Obama. Essentially, the city of Madison was inconvenienced due to his presidential presence. The cost to the city and its inhabitants canâÄôt really be calculated at this point âÄî in fact, the Madison Police Department has said that true costs on their end will not be known until after Nov. 24 âÄî but one would imagine the cost to be at least tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, simply due to peopleâÄôs lost time. But even in regard to costs that are more available for measurement, mainly the air travel cost and the cost to cities of presidential visits throughout history, ObamaâÄôs trip to Wisconsin to speak to less than a thousand people is simply irresponsible in these times. According to a 2006 report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform regarding the cost to the taxpayer of president and vice president campaign travel, the cost of the president making one campaign trip was about $100,000 in airfare alone. These are by this writerâÄôs calculations, and Obama was not exactly attending a dinner with democratic Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, but it can be looked to for a comparable figure. The exact cost of even an hour of operating Air Force One, fully staffed, is somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000, not affording for other planes that need to fly with the president and associated costs. The flight between Madison and Washington, D.C., likely took a bit less than two hours, as the locations are separated by about 700 miles. But considering the amount of time the president spent in Madison and the number of people he spoke with, is it worth our dime when the average cost of a person seeing him speak is far more than a thousand dollars of taxpayer money? While I understand that the president is a public figure and needs to be visible, trips like this are fiscally irresponsible. The Wright Middle School trip was not an out-and-out campaign event, but Obama was going to give a speech to a troubled middle school essentially for the purpose of having a photo opportunity and, I guess, to inspire children with his thrilling message about education reform in America. ItâÄôs funny, because I think his positions on education are highly defensible, most notably that student test scores need to be at least somehow involved in evaluating the effectiveness of teachers, but his attempt to get the message out was a joke. It is nice to go to a school to speak about education reform âÄî the themes fit together very well for the media or whoever might find out about it and tie these two things together without a thought âÄî but there is a much larger picture that must begin to come into account. The national debt currently stands at $12 trillion, and it certainly is not shrinking. The president of the United States needs to be a public figure and one that is available to and speaks with his constituents, but it is a thing that requires oversight and judgment. Who knows how all the costs will shake out, but I personally think ObamaâÄôs visit cost people in general upwards of a million dollars through a huge variety of little things. Perhaps in the future when figures of this sort are in the picture, it should be mandated that the president speak with as large an audience as possible. Just think: if the president had come to the nearby Alliant Energy Center that seats over 10,000 people or the Kohl Center, which seats over 17,000, how many middle school children might Obama have been able to speak to? Far more at a far cheaper rate. John Hauck welcomes comments at [email protected].