President Barack Obama's appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno on Tuesday was his tenth on a TV talk show —and it came at a high price to American taxpayers.
The flight time on Air Force One alone was $1.8 million, at a cost of $180,000 per flight hour, The Washington Times reports
But that does not 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.
The White House used the two-day California trip to mix business with pleasure. Obama spoke on the housing industry in Phoenix — and he addressed Marines at Camp Pendleton in California before flying back to Washington.
The president also had a private dinner in Los Angeles on Tuesday night with Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of the DreamWorks film studio, who raised and donated nearly $10 million for 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," Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, told the Times.
"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," he added. "Despite reimbursement rules for certain costs associated with these trips, taxpayers are usually left to pick up most of the total tab."
Despite Obama's trip having political elements, experts on campaign-finance law told the Times that there's no legal question about the Democratic Party reimbursing the government because there were no campaign stops involved.
"The only place the Federal Election Commission regulations would come into play is if he's actually making a campaign stop," former FEC Chairman David Mason, told the Times. "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 told the Times that Obama used 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," White House press secretary Jay Carney told the Times. "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 non-traditional settings," Carney said. "So you never know what you might get."
But appearing on talk shows brings another advantage, Republican strategist Ron Bonjean told the Times.
"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," Bonjean said. "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?"
Obama has done more talk-show appearances than other sitting presidents, appearing six times alone last year during his re-election campaign, the Times reports.
First lady Michelle Obama also appeared on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" and "The View" last year.
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