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Obama's Travel Itinerary Mixes Policy, Electoral Politics

Obama has also been involved in recruiting candidates for the U.S. Senate, speaking this month at the White House with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to sound her out about running for his old seat. Gibbs said "the White House will not pick a candidate in the race" but acknowledged that "obviously, this president has some interest in the makeup of Congress."

In getting outside the Beltway, something he invariably tells crowds he enjoys, Obama has chosen venues that link policy initiatives to real-world problems. The 16-state count includes Maryland and Virginia, where he has traveled several times on official business and once for burgers with Biden.

In February, Obama held a forum in Elkhart, Ind., which at the time had the nation's highest unemployment rate. There he promoted the need for stimulus legislation to revive the economy. Indiana had voted for Republican presidential candidates for 44 years until Obama won it by just over one percentage point. Gibbs said he picked Elkhart by looking through the Department of Labor Statistics list of unemployment rates, settling on the locale with the highest.

A few weeks later, after his $787 billion stimulus bill had won congressional approval, Obama visited Ohio to explain the economic virtues of the spending plan. Ohio pushed President George W. Bush over the top in 2004, but Obama won the state by fewer than five percentage points. Biden heads there this week.

Obama also traveled to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, a state he won by less than one-half of one percentage point, to announce his timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. To promote his clean-energy plans, he toured a wind-turbine tower factory in Iowa, a state he took back from the Republicans in 2008 and where the process of choosing the next president will begin again.

"A smart White House is a savvy mix of policy and politics, and in our democracy there's nothing wrong with it," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's first press secretary. "If you're all substance and no politics, you lose support on Capitol Hill. If you're all politics and no substance, you lose support among the people."

Fleischer added: "If people don't like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their president more."

To Missouri, for example.

With a whole nation to pick from, Obama chose to mark his 100th day in office with a town-hall forum in Arnold, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. He lost Missouri by just over one-tenth of one percentage point.

But he has also selected politically safe states for their value as an apt backdrop for his policies. This month he traveled to Green Bay, Wis., a state he won easily in 2008, to showcase a local health-care network that is one of the country's most efficient as a way to promote the need for his own plan.

"Regardless of where they are on the political map, these are also among states with the highest unemployment rates," said Gibbs, listing Ohio, Nevada, Indiana and California among other hard-hit states Obama has visited. "The great many of these places we use to highlight the struggle people are going through that give rise to the debate in Washington."

Obama has raised money in California, Indiana and Nevada, and election law calls for the government to be reimbursed for those explicitly political aspects of his travel. The White House calculates that amount and receives reimbursement from party committees or candidate campaign accounts. Those sums are disclosed in campaign finance filings.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, called Obama's travel choices "standard operating procedure."

She said Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to change the ways of Washington, should provide more detail on the cost of political travel and how the reimbursement amounts are set.

"This is a president who harped on transparency in the election," she said. "And this is another opportunity for him to live up to the standard the administration has set for itself."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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