Lots of planning for Obama's India trip, but not $200 million worth

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 28, 2010 

NEW DELHI — Weeks before President Barack Obama even boards Air Force One on Nov. 5 for a post-election trip to India, his man there was already thinking about the pictures.

Images will be critical, Timothy Roemer, the ambassador to India, told a White House travel-planning team in September — to help sell Obama and the United States to India. Also to sell Obama to Americans, particularly to show Americans that he's working on creating U.S. jobs even while abroad.

"We've been putting a lot of thought into both the substance and the communications," Roemer said. "Some kind of powerful picture," he said. "What are the iconic pictures?"

Part PR machine, part diplomacy, every presidential trip overseas is an enormous undertaking.

Months in the making, such a trip involves hundreds if not thousands of people and logistics, from making sure that runways can handle Air Force One to airlifting armored limousines, and Hollywood-worthy stagecraft designed to get just the right image and message to TV screens at home and abroad. The costs run into tens of millions of dollars.

When done just right, it can help define a presidency and send a message to the world — think of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan speaking defiantly at the Berlin Wall. It can symbolize a turning point in America's relations with the world — think of Richard Nixon at the Great Wall of China.

When it doesn't, it can embarrass a president — recall Reagan honoring the war dead in a German cemetery that included the graves of Nazi Waffen SS officers, or George W. Bush trying to walk off a stage in China only to find the door stuck shut.

Planning starts long before a trip, often just after the president meets with a foreign leader. Obama, for example, accepted an invitation from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when Singh was in Washington a year ago.

One of the first subjects discussed between the White House, the National Security Council, the State Department, and the U.S. Embassy in the foreign country is how to use the trip to tell a story.

It can be a speech on Omaha beach in France, or a town hall meeting with foreign students in China, or, in the case of Bill Clinton, lighting a Christmas tree in town square in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to set one image that captured peace efforts there.

"I can't tell you the amount of thought and effort that went into that," said Anne Edwards, who worked for the Clinton White House advance team. "We were looking for the right way to unite the community. Lighting a tree in the dark did it."

For the coming trip to India, Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana with a keen eye for policy and politics, suggested a list of places that Obama could visit and people he could meet.

His wish list? First, that Obama and Singh together visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a holy site to Sikhs. Second, that Obama be pictured meeting with U.S. business leaders in India. Third, that he be seen with the "Indian common man and woman." Fourth, Roemer said, "we also think the president playing a little cricket would be one of the great visuals."

The White House initially planned on Obama visiting Amritsar, but vetoed the stop several days ago. The White House repeatedly has refused to confirm or deny a report that it canceled the temple visit because Obama would have to cover his head with a scarf, and aides feared it would make him look like a Muslim.

Obama will meet with Indian students and with business executives. He's also expected to announce a sale of C-17 cargo jets to India that could mean 35,000-40,000 jobs in the U.S.

"We are very aware this trip is taking place right after a mid-term election . . . a tumultuous election," Roemer said. It is, he added, "paramount" for Obama to send a message back home that his trip will help produce jobs.

Presidents don't work these trips only to send a message back home, of course. They have an audience in the country they're visiting, and perhaps in an entire region of the world. Obama, for example, went to Cairo to speak to Muslims there and around the globe. They also have an audience in the foreign leader they meet.

Weeks before the actual visit, a "pre-advance" team visits the foreign country, including White House aides, representatives of the Secret Service, Air Force One, the Marine One helicopter crew, the president's limo, and communications experts. A representative of U.S. TV networks and another for the White House press corps goes along.

They meet with the foreign government. The Secret Service consults with local authorities.

They plan the top level meetings. Not only will the president meet with his counterpart, but representatives of U.S. departments and agencies such as Agriculture, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security also will meet with their counterparts during the president's trip. For the India trip, White House aides expect a larger-than-usual delegation.

The pre-advance team also visits sites the president might see.

In Romania, George W. Bush was invited to its equivalent of Camp David. "Everyone in the advance team had to put their eyes on it," said Jesse Suskin, who worked on the advance team in the Bush White House.

The team crosses some sites off the list right away. Too hard to secure, for example. They also add some. On a pre-advance trip to Ghana, Bush's team saw a little league baseball game and added it to the itinerary for Bush, a baseball fan.

The Air Force One crew checks out the airport. On a visit to Slovenia in the 1990s, for example, a crew member wanted to take a core sample of the tarmac to make sure the president's big plane wouldn't sink into the asphalt.

"At London's Heathrow airport, I believe them. I can look around and see 747s all over," Edwards said. "But if I go onto an airport I don't know, I'll check the depth and what it's made of. You can get the airport specs off the Internet, but you don't trust that when it's Air Force One."

Marine One helicopter pilots walk across any landing zone where the president's chopper might land or take off. Even in countries where the president isn't planning to use his own helicopter, the chopper and pilots are there, just in case.

"Even if he's just going to motorcade, Marine One will send a team. If they've got to get him out of there, they can. You may not see it, it may be in a hangar, but it's there," said Suskin.

Aides make sure the president's armored car, called The Beast, can navigate. At a museum where G-20 leaders will meet for dinner in Seoul, South Korea, later on the coming trip, for example, the White House had to work out an alternative arrival for Obama when they found his car couldn't turn in the narrow arrival spot designated for leaders.

A White House physician visits the local hospital with a top-level trauma center — just in case.

When the sites have been checked and the rest of the government has weighed in, the White House sets the itinerary.

Nothing is left to chance.

A stop at a local restaurant might appear spontaneous and unscheduled, but it is almost always inspected and planned ahead of time. Though insiders call it an OTR, for Off the Record, it is usually on the record, and on camera.

Every step is planned. Planning Obama's stop in Yokohama, Japan, at the end of the coming trip, Japanese officials went so far as to map out the precise routes Obama would walk from hotel room to elevator, from elevator to lobby, and so on.

Finally, one to two weeks before the president arrives, the U.S. government launches a massive airlift to get everything in place.

Flight after flight of C-17 cargo jets arrive at the host country, carrying the limousines, the helicopters and the communications equipment.

Flying everything over is a huge undertaking, especially to third world countries where the White House might need more communications equipment or other hardware that's not as readily available as it is in developed nations.

Setting up a five-country trip including India for Clinton in 2000, for example, required 94 round-trip flights of C-17s and 47 flights of C-5s, at a cost of more than $37 million, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Once everything is in place, the president arrives aboard Air Force One, usually the familiar, modified 747. Ten minutes later, an identical 747 lands, carrying more staff and serving as a backup — just in case the president needs it.

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