President Obama’s Asian tour got off to a solemn start Saturday, with a visit to the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, the site of the four-day siege that killed more than 170 people in 2008. The choice was intended “to send a very clear message that in our determination to give our people a future of security and prosperity, the United States and India stand united,” said Obama. For the rest of the 10-day trip, Obama will shift his focus to business. After India, Obama will go to Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan. Business is on the agenda in South Korea, where he will attend the G20 gathering, and Japan, where he will attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. “The whole focus,” Obama said on Wednesday, “is on how are we going to open up markets so that American businesses can prosper, and we can sell more goods and create more jobs here in the United States.”
Stung by huge losses at the polls, King Obama is taking a $2 billion Indian vacation with 3,000 guests on 40 planes. Or that’s what the Wingnuts would have us believe. John Avlon on the right’s latest conspiracy theory.
“A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” Mark Twain once famously said. In the Internet age, the speed of a politically motivated lie is even faster—case in point, the Wingnuts’ fact-free, post-election pile-on over President Obama’s trip to India.
The conspiracy theory du jour is an alleged $2 billion price tag for the president’s trip, which would be offensive and imperial indeed if it had any basis in fact. But (almost) needless to say, it doesn’t.
Rep. Michele Bachmann first brought up the India trip expenses two days ago in response to a question from CNN’s Anderson Cooper about what budget cuts she would support.
But specific policy plans aren’t as satisfying as demagoguery, so she pivoted to attack mode.
“The president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day,” she said. “He’s taking 2,000 people with him. He will be renting out over 870 rooms in India. And these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is the kind of over-the-top spending... it’s a very small example, Anderson. And I think this is an example of the massive overspending that we have seen, not only just in the last two years, really in the last four. That’s what we saw at the ballot box last evening.”
Soon Glenn Beck was calling the business investment outreach trip “a vacation where you needed 34 warships and $2 billion.” Michael Savage described it as “this incredible royalist visit.” The talk-radio circuit and right-wing blogosphere was burning with manufactured outrage.
A political rumor usually takes hold in people’s minds because it surfs off a pre-existing negative narrative. In this case, the initial impulse builds off accusations of fiscal irresponsibility. But they quickly turn to “King Obama” assignations, which in this White House occupant’s case are not just arrogant out-of-touch elitists or even wannabe Third World dictators. He feels entitled. Entitled, get it?
Here’s El Rushbo’s take, filed under “Obama Family Feels Entitled to Lavish India Trip”:
“We had a caller with a good question regarding Obama’s trip to India: ‘Is he coming back or fleeing to exile?’ I have a different theory. I don’t know what are the policy reasons that Obama’s going to India. I have no idea. But the idea that you’re going to take 3,000 people and you’re booking over 500 rooms in a hotel and you’re taking 40 airplanes, what that tells me is that you have a guy and a family who thinks this nation owes ’em. And while they’re in a position to, they are going to live off of this country as much as they can. They are gonna get theirs. That’s what this tells me. No president has ever had anywhere close to 40 airplanes, 3,000 people, 500 rooms in one hotel. And that’s just one hotel, for a 10-day trip, $200 million a day. It’s never been done before. This is somebody that says, ‘It’s my turn. My turn, our turn to get what has been denied us all these years,’ that’s what I think.”
It’s the president as welfare queen, living it up on the taxpayers’ dime, motivated by a sense of revenge.
Somehow, criticisms of the fictitious costs of the trip pivot to a sense of entitlement, with a hint of reparations—“you have a guy and a family who thinks this nation owes ’em…This is somebody that says, ‘It’s my turn. My turn, our turn to get what has been denied us all these years.’” It’s not just “the affirmative action” presidency, as some folks on the far right have called President Obama—it’s the president as welfare queen, living it up on the taxpayers’ dime, motivated by a sense of revenge.
Trying to turn presidential trips into a political football is an old and discredited trick tried by both sides. During the W. years, the Henry Waxman-led Committee on Oversight and Government Reform conducted an investigation into the taxpayer cost of President Bush’s 77 trips to Crawford, Texas, and came up with a price tag of $226,000 a pop, trumpeted by Daily Kos, among others. Back during the Clinton years, foreign visits to Africa drew overheated partisan scrutiny. Earlier in Obama’s presidency, the New York Post griped about a “$24,000 Date” for dinner and a play in New York City, which was dissected by Media Matters alongside Bush travel costs.
It’s always essentially a bogus charge because the president’s security is what drives most costs—and that is non-optional. But the criticism of Obama’s India trip is especially excessive, prompting the State Department spokesman to describe the figures cited as “absolutely absurd... comical.” The military newspaper Stars and Stripes offered this nonpartisan reality check: “'There are not 34 ships—and there isn’t an aircraft carrier—supporting the president’s trip,' said a Defense official, who declined to provide any information on security measures for presidential trips.”
AC 360 did an excellent next-night analysis on its “Keeping Them Honest “ segment and Talking Points Memo did a thorough roundup of the partisan misinformation pile-on. And PolitiFact took on Bachmann.
Considering that conservative criticism of Obama often features accusations that he is anti-business and a secret socialist, one would be forgiven for thinking that this trade mission with U.S. CEOs to India might attract some degree of grudging support. After all, India is a rising power, an ally, and a better long-term trading partner than China, given that it is a democracy, not a market Leninist state. And Obama’s outreach builds squarely on President Bush’s historic overtures to the Indian government, which included the sale of nuclear reactors to bring clean energy to the subcontinent. But Wingnuts have a hard time viewing the national interest outside a partisan prism.
In another era, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” This India-trip insanity is the latest example that we are in danger of self-segregating ourselves into separate political realities, where each side comes armed with its own facts, courtesy of the partisan media. And in this environment, hard-hitting, independent, honest brokers are more important than ever before.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.