Obamas’ Expensive Night Out

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama make their way to board Air Force One before departing John F. Kennedy International Airport May 30, 2009 in New York City. Obama and his wife are on a personal trip to New York City.The blogosphere is abuzz with news that the Obamas spent the afternoon relaxing in NYC.

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama landed in New York Saturday afternoon, and after taking a helicopter from JFK into Manhattan, drove up the West Side Highway, where the northbound lanes were shut down by police for their visit, past Ground Zero, into the Village for dinner at the Village’s Blue Hill restaurant. From there, they went north to Times Square, where they went to to see a production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Belasco Theater on West 44 Street.

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest read a statement from Obama: “I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished.”

Asked about the cost of the trip, which Republicans have criticized as indulgent, coming just ahead of the expected announcement of GM’s bankruptcy filing on Monday, Josh Earnest told pool reporter Dave Michaels of the Dallas Morning News, that he “didn’t anticipate being able to provide a cost estimate tonight.”

After the play let out at about 11:30 p.m., the presidential motorcade went down Sixth Avenue, shut down by the NYPD, and onlookers packed onto the East side of the street cheered as the presidential motorcade passed as the Obamas headed back to JFK for a return flight to Washington.

The chief complaints seem to be that this is ridiculously indulgent and expensive and that it’s particularly unseemly given the state of the economy.   While I’m not entirely unsympathetic to either of those arguments, TigerHawk is probably right that we don’t want the Leader of the Free World to go into bunker mode and that the cost is trivial compared to other things we spend money on.  And, as Barbara O’Brien notes, we spent plenty on George W. Bush’s vacations (even if they were less showy).

It’s insanely expensive for presidents to do just about anything because of their need for a large security entourage and to have constant access to secure communications.  It’s annoying but it’s the cost of doing business and I don’t begrudge the Obamas the occasional foray into normalcy.

My major problem with these things is the inconvenience they cause for others.  It’s outrageous to shut down major highways for the convenience of public officials, let alone when they’re not on official business.  Further, I’d be shocked if their fellow theater-goers weren’t subjected to inordinate and unexpected inconvenience in order to cater to the Obamas’ security needs.  That bothers me.

I don’t, however, blame the Obamas for this but rather the culture of security we’ve built around the presidency, especially, but to other high offices as well. Since we can’t expect — and shouldn’t desire — for our leaders to live in seclusion for the entire tenure of their offices, we really need to figure out a way to let them get out and about without inordinate inconvenience to the rest of us.   There’s got to be a way to simultaneously provide them with reasonable security and not shut down the town around them.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. just me says:

    My major problem with these things is the inconvenience they cause for others. It’s outrageous to shut down major highways for the convenience of public officials, let alone when they’re not on official business. Further, I’d be shocked if their fellow theater-goers weren’t subjected to inordinate and unexpected inconvenience in order to cater to the Obamas’ security needs. That bothers me.

    For me this is the real problem. It isn’t so much that the president and his wife/family shouldn’t be able to go out and enjoy things, but their going out means the regular people get subjected to delays and other hassles.

    But I do have one issue with the night out in New York-flying three planes and helicopters to go out to eat and see a play seems to be something the president could have just as easily done in DC-not sure why they needed to go to New York. It isn’t that I think the president can’t leave DC, but the extravagance to me in this is that everything they did was doable for much less money in DC.

  2. Mike says:

    Just curious – who pays for the tickets and meals – my understanding is that the president has to pay his personal expenses – ie actual cost of his food but not for the cost of say shutting down the rest of the restaurant (if necessary) or the cost of meals for a guest at the white house. anyone know how costs are divvied up? I don’t fault the president for the costs of this trip because it is good to see the president out – the inconvenience is a factor for many but the alternative is to never leave the white house.
    I do blame the white house for debacles like AF One flying over NYC for a photo op at a cost of a couple hundred thousand – that is just ridiculous. The president probably didn’t know about the flight but someone on his staff must have.

  3. John Burgess says:

    So… DC’s theater scene isn’t good enough? 🙂

    I’ve no objection, actually. Yeah, when the President moves, even within DC, it can be a major pain for others. Security doesn’t really permit advanced notice so the innocent bystander can avoid the traffic jams. It seems there’s no way to really win on this other than to stay home, forever and always.

    If you want to see real inconvenience, though, watch what happens when Obama arrives in Cairo next week. The entire city east of the Nile, from the airport to wherever he’s staying, will be shut down for hours, likely the whole day. It will become literally impossible to move in the city unless by foot or in a secured motorcade.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Move on. Nothing to see here.

  5. Michael says:

    Further, I’d be shocked if their fellow theater-goers weren’t subjected to inordinate and unexpected inconvenience in order to cater to the Obamas’ security needs.

    I mean, it’s a theatre, what could possibly go wrong?

  6. KenJ says:

    Criticism should ultimately be based on how often he makes trips like this. Before he was elected he was in a financial position to make 3 or 4 such trips per year if he wished. Why do we begrudge him that right now? There are certainly enough other issues to criticize him about – this is not one of them.

  7. just me says:

    Just curious – who pays for the tickets and meals – my understanding is that the president has to pay his personal expenses – ie actual cost of his food but not for the cost of say shutting down the rest of the restaurant (if necessary) or the cost of meals for a guest at the white house. anyone know how costs are divvied up?

    I think the city picks up the cost for the security and traffic shut downs. The US taxpayer pays for the flights and motorcades. Although does the press corps pay for the flights, or is that something else the taxpayer picks up?

    I wonder who pays for the security personal to buy tickets-do the Obama’s (or presidential family) pay for secret service agent tickets and meals or do the taxpayers on these outings? would be interesting.

  8. Pug says:

    There’s got to be a way to simultaneously provide them with reasonable security and not shut down the town around them.

    The solution might be not to announce every move the President makes beforehand. It is possible he could slip into a theatre for a couple hours with a fairly small security detail if everybody didn’t know in advance where he was going.

  9. MarkOfBrooklyn says:

    “It’s only in America” that this kind of thing could be so dissected. The ability to live a normal life is important to the mental health of the president. Going to Broadway is important to the financial health of the theater industry. Should he be a prisoner of DC and go nowhere because of the cost? Isn’t NY 4hrs away from DC by road? Should he have traveled by car to the theater? The show was delayed 45 minutes because of security, but I’m sure that most patrons were not complaining.
    We need to grow up in this country and take our place among the more established civilizations of the world. Financially we’ve made it, but sadly our attitude is found wanting – culturally.

  10. Alex Knapp says:

    I don’t, however, blame the Obamas for this but rather the culture of security we’ve built around the presidency, especially, but to other high offices as well. Since we can’t expect — and shouldn’t desire — for our leaders to live in seclusion for the entire tenure of their offices, we really need to figure out a way to let them get out and about without inordinate inconvenience to the rest of us. There’s got to be a way to simultaneously provide them with reasonable security and not shut down the town around them.

    While I agree with this, I’m at a loss to say what it is. We’ve had 43 Presidents. Of those 43, TEN have been attacked directly and four have died. That’s a pretty high percentage.

  11. John Burgess says:

    just me: The press corps pays its own way. It’s been that way since, oh, probably 20 years ago. The media bosses have great fear that by getting things like airfare ‘free’, their reporters would lose all sense of proportion and suddenly start pimping for the Administration.

    As they are happier doing that on their own dime, I guess taxpayers should rejoice. Or something…

  12. It all reminds me a bit of the Genie’s line in Disney’s Aladdin, “phenomenal cosmic power, itty-bitty living space.”

    As a practical matter, when you aspire to this particular job you have to know there are just some things that aren’t practical any longer. Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more practical to fly the cast and crew in to perform the Broadway play at the Kennedy Center?

  13. just me says:

    Isn’t NY 4hrs away from DC by road?

    Maybe he should have taken the train. I know there is a train that runs between the two cities. It probably would have used less fuel, but not sure about the time, and NYC streets still would have been shut down for the motorcade.

  14. DavidL says:

    If the one wants to get out of Washington City, we taxpayers have already provided him a retreat at Camp David. With Obama everything is a campaign event. The trip to NYC was about being seen, not seeing any play.

    Most presidents have had a good deal of humility. Obama could use a lot of it.

  15. Tano says:

    “I don’t, however, blame the Obamas for this but rather the culture of security we’ve built around the presidency…”

    I, for one, am glad we have that culture of security around the presidency. We’ve lost one president in my lifetime, and almost two others. Whether you like the person or his politics, or not, its a monstrous crime against democracy itself to have a president killed. I dont mind a bit of inconvenience if I happen to be near a president. I dont understand why anyone who cares about our democracy, and who understands the realities of the world, would be bothered by it.

    “we really need to figure out a way to let them get out and about without inordinate inconvenience to the rest of us. ”

    yeah, so let us know when you think of something…

  16. just me says:

    I dont mind a bit of inconvenience if I happen to be near a president.

    I agree that slacking on security isn’t a good idea. Although I am not convinced roads and streets must be shut down while the president is riding in his motorcade from point A to point B.

    But you know-given that the president is aware that his going out and about inconvieniences many people, maybe the president should think carefully about the things he does that will mean shutting down major streets. Going out on a date with his wife is one thing, but his various trips to burger places in order to have photo ops are annoying. If he must have a burger, seems like he should consider the regular people and send a few staffers to pick it up.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    If the one wants to get out of Washington City, we taxpayers have already provided him a retreat at Camp David.

    I assume you felt the same way when Bush hightailed it back to Crawford on a regular basis?

    With Obama everything is a campaign event. The trip to NYC was about being seen, not seeing any play.

    Oh, so you can read minds? Tell us exactly what he and Michelle had for dinner too…

  18. An Interested Party says:

    If only Drudge had been around in 1865…

  19. jghedge says:

    On the one hand the Right panders to the mentally unstable elements of society by constantly promoting senseless violence and universal gun ownership as the solution to every problem (as witnessed by today’s right-wing-media sanctioned terrorism in the church in Wichita), and on the other they complain when the heightened security needs created by that pandering creates the need to basically commandeer sections of any city our president chooses to visit.

  20. just me says:

    I assume you felt the same way when Bush hightailed it back to Crawford on a regular basis?

    One difference in Crawford trips is that the property is owned by Bush, which in my mind is much like visiting your home. The comparison for Obama would be a trip back home to Chicago, not a date night in New York.

    Either way-I think presidents should have time to themselves and their families, but I do think they should be mindful of what kind of inconvienience their time off may be causing for others. The date night to New York doesn’t actually bother me nearly as much in this regard as his little trips out to pick up a burger which shuts down traffic during the day so he can have a photo op.

    Did they shut Crawford down when Bush would come visit? Anyone know? I know the various protesters would go protest outside his ranch, so I figure they got there some way.

    I am just not convinced that shutting down roads-for any president is the most cost efficient or even efficient way to protect the president.

  21. Tony says:

    BIBLE VERSES OBAMA AVOIDS !

    For reasons known only to him, President Obama avoids certain Bible verses:
    Proverbs 19:10 (NIV): “It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury – how much worse for a slave to rule over princes!”
    Also Proverbs 30:22 (NIV) which says that the earth cannot bear up under “a servant who becomes king.”