Since Congress passed President Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill in February, administration officials have traveled to at least 66 events across the country to tout the massive spending program or hand out stimulus cash to grateful local officials.
But a POLITICO examination of the travel reveals a distinctly political trend line: Top officials have hosted events predominantly in states that Obama won in 2008.
What’s more, the examination revealed that Obama officials all but avoided Southern states that Obama lost.
It is not unusual for a presidential administration to find ways to reward its supporters through federal largesse, particularly in this case, when the goal of the stimulus program is push money out the door to states and localities that can spend it quickly to jump-start the economy. The Bush administration was criticized in 2004 for sending Cabinet officials on trips that critics said doubled as campaigning for the president’s reelection bid.
But the numbers tell the tale: 52 of the 66 events were in states that backed Obama. And taken together, the itineraries amount to a veritable map of Obama’s election-night victories — big-money states like California and New York, swing states like Ohio and Colorado that Obama turned blue and other solidly Democratic states Obama kept in his column.
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The events were weighted to big cities that provided Obama some of his biggest election-night margins: Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Of the other 14 events, Vice President Joe Biden and Cabinet officials often touched down in places where Obama lost narrowly and that Democrats hope to pull into their column by 2012, such as Missouri, Arizona, Montana and North Dakota.
Only two Southern states were visited by Cabinet officials for stimulus-related trips: Georgia and Kentucky, according to information provided by the White House and an examination of news releases from all 21 Cabinet-level agencies.
White House officials noted that stimulus spending is going to all 50 states based on a proportional formula. Biden holds weekly conference calls about stimulus projects with officials from all over the country, including Democrats and Republicans. As of May 28, those calls had included 46 governors, 51 mayors and 15 county executives, including officials from both parties.
And the White House sharply denied that there was any political motivation to the travel. “Politics plays no role in implementation of the Recovery Act or highlighting its successes. Period,” said Liz Oxhorn, press secretary for the Recovery Act.
Still, the stimulus bill has the potential to be a publicity bonanza for the Obama administration for years to come — through the 2010 midterm elections and beyond. As of mid-May, the administration had spent only 6 percent of the money Congress allotted for the program, and the White House says officials will continue to travel the country until all of the money is spent.
The events generally come in the form of roundtable discussions, upbeat speeches and sweeping announcements of billions of dollars for local communities. Some have all the hallmarks of campaign events, featuring banks of television cameras, flag-bedecked stages and local politicians working the crowds. Many generate the kind of admiring local media coverage that politicians crave — and largely escape the attention of national outlets.
At one event in Arlington, Va., Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano handed over a made-for-TV, supersize check to the United Way.
“It’s always great to play Santa Claus when the sack is bottomless,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. Pitney says there’s a clear political rationale behind the travel pattern: &dquo;It’s better to shore up your base and spend time in swing states than it is to spend time in states that will probably go against you anyway.”
Obama officials have visited 28 states and the District of Columbia, and the most heavily visited are Ohio, with six events, and four states that have played host to five events each: California, New York, Colorado and Indiana, all carried by Obama. Arizona, which Obama lost, had four events.
In recent days, the administration has been stepping up the pace, taking trips to Ohio and Indiana as part of its effort to focus on communities hardest hit by automaker bankruptcies. On Wednesday, for example, administration officials — including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis — held five events in Ohio and Michigan. The day before, they held eight events in New York, Indiana and Michigan featuring Biden, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and others.
In the border state of Missouri on April 16, for example, Biden addressed a crowd of hundreds at a transformer factory operated by the power company ABB in Jefferson City. Standing before a group of smiling plant workers on a stage decorated with American-flag bunting, Biden delivered remarks, flanked by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon as audience members held up cameras and cell phones to snap pictures. Chu also spoke, and Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat who is running for the Senate in 2010, worked the room along with several other local officials, including some Republicans.
The vice president touted $3.3 billion in smart-grid technology development grants and an additional $615 million in stimulus spending on smart-grid storage, monitoring and technology viability. Afterward, he greeted spectators along a rope line. The event was a success, garnering coverage in both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Columbia Missourian.
Missouri was a hard-fought battleground state in 2008. It was the last state in the nation to be decided, tilting toward Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) with a margin of less than 1 percentage point.
Biden will travel to Kansas, a state Obama lost, on June 11 for the first stimulus event held there.
Still, the White House says its stimulus events are not political rallies. Instead, they are intended to let Obama administration officials meet and gather ideas from the local officials and business leaders who are most affected by the stimulus spending. And the White House says the trips also help alert Americans to stimulus money they might not have known was available to them.
But not everyone agrees that the great stimulus road trip is free of political considerations. “They have never left the campaign election trail, and I suspect they never will,” said Katon Dawson, former South Carolina Republican Party chairman, who predicts the economic downturn will continue to generate voter anger through the election cycle. “If there’s going to be a ‘throw the bums out’ mentality in 2010, the race is on to define who the bum is.”
Kathryn McGarr contributed to this story.