As America’s first family enjoys its eighth and final vacation in Hawaii, new estimates put the price tag of the Obamas’ annual trip at $3.5 million or more.
In total, the cost of the the first family’s personal or largely personal travel during the last eight years comes to $85 million – though that is likely to climb to $90 million after additional records are released, according to the conservative group Judicial Watch based on federal government records.
The cost of Air Force One and other government planes as well as helicopters, cargo planes, armored cars, Secret Service protection and advance, communications and medical staff has led Judicial Watch to push for less personal travel.
“The Secret Service and the Air Force are being abused by unnecessary travel,” Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said. “Unnecessary presidential travel for fundraising and luxury vacations on the taxpayers’ dime would be a good target for reform for the incoming Trump administration.”
President-elect Donald Trump prefers to vacation at his own properties. He is spending Christmas at Mar-A-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, where he stayed for Thanksgiving. After the election, he spent a weekend at Bedminster golf club in New Jersey, which has fueled speculation that it could be Trump’s Camp David.
Hawaii is a special place for the president and one of his favorite places to visit. The first family enjoys vacationing in Hawaii for the same reasons many others do, including scenic views, beautiful beaches, a relaxed pace, and great restaurants.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz
Critics of Obama’s annual vacations to Hawaii and Martha’s Vineyard say President George W. Bush – and perhaps Trump – likely saved money because their vacation homes, including Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, were modified one time – some at a cost to taxpayers – and accommodated some of the traveling entourage. At Bush’s ranch, some slept in trailers.
Published reports say the Trumps’ Thanksgiving trip to Florida wound up costing $7 million. Congress recently appropriated $7 million to reimburse state and local law enforcement agencies for overtime costs associated with protecting Trump before his inauguration. Palm Beach County says the county spent $250,000 for security support for Trump during his four-day visit over Thanksgiving.
The White House defended Obama’s trip to Hawaii, which is where the president was born and spent much of his childhood.
“Despite the security apparatus that accompanies any president when traveling, the administration works with the United States Secret Service to minimize the disruptions to local residents and businesses,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. “Honolulu is a place where the president can enjoy some downtime with his family and friends and he’s grateful for the warm hospitality he enjoys when there.”
Obama has taken less vacation time than his Republican predecessor.
He’s taken 28 vacations spanning all or part of 217 days, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS News White House correspondent who maintains an authoritative record of presidential activities. Those numbers do not include the latest Hawaii trip, which began Friday and is expected to end Jan. 2.
By comparison, President George W. Bush made 77 visits to his Texas ranch spanning all or part of 490 days, and 11 visits to his family’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine, spanning all or part of 43 days, according to Knoller.
“Like every other human being, presidents need time to refresh or replenish,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff in his second term.
Yet criticism of presidential vacations is not new and may have started with John Adams, who frequently traveled from the capital to his Massachusetts home.
Even if they do get away, a president’s staff and equipment follows them, as do problems. Some presidents have had to cancel or interrupt their vacations.
The president is never on vacation and the White House travels wherever the president is whether Hawaii or Martha’s Vineyard or Crawford, Texas, or Kennebunkport. They don’t have an opportunity to take time off.
Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff in his second term
“A president is never truly on vacation,” said Brendan J. Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who tracks presidential trips. “A president might get a change of venue but a president is never truly off the job.”
President Dwight Eisenhower returned to the White House from Newport, Rhode Island, to dispatch federal troops to Arkansas after nine black students were stopped from entering Central High School in Little Rock. But President George W. Bush was chastised for waiting three days before ending his month-long vacation after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Obama has seen many crises – the BP oil spill, the beheading of an American journalist, riots in Ferguson, Missouri, an attempt to blow up an airliner – mar his vacations. In 2014, the media even questioned if the president had a vacation curse.
Judicial Watch recently received records revealing that Secret Service expenses for the first family’s 2015 Hawaiian vacation cost taxpayers $1.2 million, bringing the total cost of the vacation trip to at least $4.8 million.
$180,118 Cost per hour of flying Air Force One
Secret Service costs included $1 million for lodging, $166,000 on 103 car rentals and $68,000 for air and rail expenses. In response to another recent public records request about the 2015 trip, the Air Force revealed that it costs $180,118 per hour to fly and operate the president’s plane, Air Force One.
Judicial Watch has been trying to calculate the price tag of Obama personal trips for years through public records requests. It recently received records on Obama’s trips to New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Palm City, Florida, in 2014 and 2015 in which he raised money, campaigned and golfed. The group says the cost was $286,000 solely for Secret Service travel and accommodations.
Some trips included the entire family, while others included one other member. Most trips of the first lady and daughters are not publicized and remain unknown. But Judicial Watch has received some records about some of those trips, including the family’s trip to New York and first lady Michelle Obama’s ski trip to Aspen, Colorado, as well as several of Barack Obama’s golf outings.
The first family pays for housing when they are on vacation. Published reports indicate that the Obamas stayed last year at the Hale Reena Estate in Hawaii, which “rents for anywhere between $5,000 to $10,000 a night, depending on the season.”
In general, the White House disputes the travel numbers, saying that often the trips include both work and personal activities. Even this year’s Hawaii vacation includes work.
Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor Tuesday, 75 years after Japan’s attack on Hawaii. The trip came after Obama made an unprecedented journey with Abe in May with to Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb.