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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The presidential contest ran into familiar territory today. The White House is fielding questions about President Obama's travel: what's official, what's political and whether the taxpayer is getting stuck with the bill.

As NPR's Peter Overby reports, the issue comes up every time a president runs for re-election.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Let's start with President Obama's trip to Florida earlier this month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, it is great to be back in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: It is great to be back in Boca.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OVERBY: This is an official presidential speech on the economy at Florida Atlantic University. The president hit two fundraisers on the same trip. How to sort that out?

JAY CARNEY: We go absolutely by the book.

OVERBY: That's Jay Carney at a press briefing last week. It costs a massive amount--nobody has ever figured out just how massive--to move the president around.

CARNEY: As in other administrations, including our immediate predecessors, as you know, we follow all the rules and regulations to ensure that the DNC or other relevant political committee pays what is required for the president or first lady to travel to political events.

OVERBY: Dealing with the same issue in 2004 when President George W. Bush was running for a second term, Scott McClellan said this to CNN.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: If there are political events, they are paid for out of political funds. You know, official events - obviously, the president of the United States is president 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

BRENDAN DOHERTY: Presidents of both parties in recent administrations have all declared that they carefully follow the law, that they pay the appropriate share as required by the law, and that's absolutely true.

OVERBY: Brendan Doherty is a political scientist at the United States Naval Academy.

DOHERTY: But the law doesn't require that they pay very much.

OVERBY: Doherty, who says these are his opinions, not the Naval Academy's, has a brand new book called "The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign." He analyzed presidential travel patterns going back to Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

DOHERTY: What I find is that President Obama disproportionately travels to battleground states at about the same rate that George W. Bush did, and that both of them have done so more than their predecessors.

OVERBY: The big-ticket item is Air Force One. Its official price tag, the cost of an hour in the air, has gone from $5,600 in 1982 for a much smaller plane than today's 747, to $57,000 during the 2004 Bush campaign to $180,000 this year. That doesn't count the entourage, the second plane any of that.

Now, President Obama's trip to Florida was deemed political, not official, because it had fundraisers on the itinerary. And for that, there's a formula. The Democratic National Committee is supposed to reimburse the equivalent of seats on a charter plane for all the political people. Not a chartered 747, the size of Air Force One, but a 737 not nearly so large.

This formula originally came from a lawyer in the Carter administration, now a semi-retired lobbyist Mike Berman. He says it was obvious the campaign should be paying something, but at the same time...

MIKE BERMAN: The ancillary planes and all those other things that go along with it, never were included because they only have to do with the president being the president.

OVERBY: Politicians like the formula well enough that in 35 years there's been only one real change. Berman had pegged the reimbursements to seats in first class. In 2010, the Federal Election Commission upgraded that to seats on a charter plane. What does Berman make of the re-election year controversies?

BERMAN: I make of it that somebody's sitting there figuring out things to complain about, and - on one side or the other, and gee, this seems like a perfectly good throwaway, and so you pop it.

OVERBY: He says he's reasonably sure that none of this changes any votes. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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