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A bad fiscal example

By Bill Felber

I read a note the other day to the effect that President Obama recently flew out to Las Vegas to deliver an address on immigration reform. The trip took nine hours, and I’m trying to figure out why.

The speech on immigration reform isn’t the puzzle. I get that part. What I don’t get is why he decided to devote nine hours to transporting himself and his staff across country and back to speak to the mostly Latino high school student body that provided his audience.

Isn’t there an easier way? Don’t they have technology in Las Vegas? Skype or something?

When you analyze the pluses and minuses, this kind of speaking trip is really an egregious example of the type of waste of money that ought to be done away with.

It sets a bad energy-efficiency example. There are many less wasteful ways to deliver the same message to the same audience live and with equal force.

It sets a bad security example by needlessly exposing the president to real-world risks he is protected against in the White House.

It sets a horrible fiscal example because it literally costs millions of dollars to do all the security precautions, then staff and fly the airplane. The published estimates I’ve seen are $1.6 million for the plane trip alone, and that doesn’t consider the cost of the staff on board or any oof the preparation.

It is a waste of the president’s valuable time — presumably it’s valuable — in travel. Or it would be if the president wasn’t in constant touch on those trips. But that constant touch runs up the cost meter again.

It’s also a cost to those inconvenienced by the trip. In the case at hand, that specifically includes airplane and helicopter tour operators in the Las Vegas area, who were grounded by the 30-mile no-fly zone imposed by the Secret Service in deference to the presence of Air Force One.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon. Vegas operators of Canyon flights estimated their fiscal hit at $500,000 to $750,000.

Those are the minuses. I presume the pluses are that the president gets to get out, be seen and cheered by a student body that otherwise would not have a chance to do so, and in so doing to be perceived as more forcefully making his point. He also gets to fund-raise while he’s out there; a private evening schmooze-fest was on the agenda.

Some of the rationale behind those pluses is really too weak to require refutation, but I’ll take a stab at the rest.

First, I believe the president is constitutionally barred from running for re-election, so any popularity gain he accrues is irrelevant to anything beyond ego. Ditto for private fund-raisers, especially those staged while drinking from the public faucet.

Second, any political benefit accrued by speaking personally to one group of high schoolers surely must be substantially outweighed by the lost opportunity to speak by virtual means to seven or eight groups of high schoolers successively, which is what the president could have done if he had not been tied up actually transporting himself across country for those nine hours.

Third, nobody in that high school was getting within spitting distance of the president. I’ve been to presidential speeches: ain’t happening.

In short, the whole trip was needless, expensive and inefficient.

The fact is I can’t think of a real solid reason why the president would actually go anywhere these days without a genuine, solid need to do so.

That reason would presumably involve some sort of delicate national or international negotiation, perhaps with Boris Putin. In all other circumstances, the cost — in time, money and efficiency — simply outweighs the benefit.

I would remind the president that these are tough economic times. He needs to set an example for the rest of us.

Hunker down, dude.

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