Monday, June 6, 2011

Presidential disaster visits overdone

A disadvantage of the American form of government is that it combines in one person the ceremonial role of head of state plus the decision-making role of the head of government. In constitutional monarchies like England the monarch and other members of the royal family handle the ceremonial-symbolic duties while the prime minister takes care of running the government.

There is a danger in the United States that a leader will overdo on ceremonial duties, which leaves less time and energy for studying policy issues, making important decisions, and negotiating with legislators and with foreign governments.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has been catching a lot of flak because, unlike his predecessor, he has not been attending all the funerals for Oregon soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. But by staying away from funerals he may be serving Oregonians better than Ted Kulongoski did.

We have had many weather-related national disasters lately, and President Obama has been spending considerable time flying out to promise federal assistance, commiserate with victims, and generally represent the concerns of the nation about them. One wonders, however, if he should consider emulating Governor Kitzhaber instead.

The federal assistance the President promises would arrive anyhow, whether Obama came or not. Concerns could be expressed just as well from the White House as they could from Joplin, Missouri. Presidential visits present logistical problems wherever they occur, but these can be especially troublesome for areas where the problems of daily life have been exasperated by flooding, tornadoes, or earthquakes.

And then there is the matter of financial and ecological costs. The estimated costs of operating Air Force One vary all over the place, from a low of about $40,000 per hour of flight to a high of $180,000 per hour. At current aviation fuel prices of $5.47 per gallon of Jet-A, Air Force One costs about $23,000 per hour just for fuel , and burning this fuel puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It might be better for the government to donate this money to the Red Cross and let the President stay in the White House and concentrate on governing the country.

Or if this seems too cold-blooded, such ceremonial visits could at least be delegated to the Vice President, whose time is under less pressure and whose smaller airplane would burn less fuel, cost less money, and make a smaller contribution to global warming.


This article has run in the Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan). A shortened version has appeared as a letter-to-the-editor in the (Corvallis, Oregon) Gazette-Times.

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