Yes, Hillary Clinton's ride on Air Force One with President Obama as they headed to a campaign event in North Carolina Tuesday was a big deal. It was a really big deal. In fact, nothing remotely like it has ever happened in a U.S. presidential election.
Use of Air Force One on the campaign trail isn't anything new. Every incumbent president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has used the impressive and persuasive symbol of the executive jumbo jet to boost his image with the voters. But now, an outgoing president is having his preferred successor join him on Air Force One to travel together. That's a first, because the potential negatives from such a visible and symbolic collusion have always outweighed the positives. Clearly, top level people in the White House and the Clinton campaign seem to think it's different this time.
Before we weigh those positives and negatives, let's look at the history of outgoing presidents campaigning for their preferred successors in the "jet age." The first outgoing president even able to use Air Force One to get to a campaign event was Lyndon Johnson, who did so at an event at the Houston Astrodome for Hubert Humphrey just two days before election day in 1968. But as you can see in this video, special care was used to show Johnson and then-Vice President Humphrey arriving in separate jets.
The next outgoing president with an opportunity to campaign for his chosen successor was Ronald Reagan 20 years later. But Reagan's popularity was surging at that time and the George H.W. Bush campaign was worried about being overshadowed by the "Gipper." Joint appearances were thus kept to a minimum and when the president and Bush happened to be in the same city, the president was usually on his way out just as Bush was arriving.
In 2000, outgoing President Bill Clinton was kept more than an arm's length from then-Vice President Al Gore during the election. The Gore campaign was worried the 1998-99 impeachment scandal would hurt his chances. So at their one most publicized joint campaign appearance in Michigan just before the Democratic National Convention, Clinton and Gore did not travel to the state together on Air Force One.
President George W. Bush's plummeting poll numbers in 2008 greatly diminished his ability to help John McCain in the election. Bush attended a couple McCain fundraisers via Air Force One, but he traveled without the Arizona Senator in tow.
President Obama's job approval rating remains in the 50% range, making him a decent ally for Hillary Clinton in this election. But how he helps her is crucial. Allowing her to break tradition and hitch a ride on Air Force One is already raising some resonant questions from the Donald Trump campaign. Trump has already tweeted more than one sharp question about what the cost will be to the taxpayers for the trip. Election laws do require the Clinton campaign to reimburse the government by paying for the equivalent cost of 1st class tickets for everyone from the campaign who makes the trip. But it's not 100% clear if it will also have to cover the $228,000 per hour that it costs to operate the presidential jet. We may not know for sure until the Clinton campaign releases its July cost statement sometime in August. Incidentally, CNBC has been busy for weeks closely analyzing these monthly campaign statements from the Clinton and Trump camps to the Federal Election Commission. Not much is likely to slip away unnoticed.
Of course, no one is expecting President Obama not to show as much favoritism as possible to a fellow Democrat he has already endorsed to succeed him in the Oval Office. That's especially true when you realize Trump's election would essentially repudiate everything this president believes his presidency stood for and accomplished. But the "optics" of using Air Force One to ferry Clinton to this event aren't just raising hackles from Trump, they're stoking angry reactions from a lot of voters who believe the fix is in.
The decision Tuesday from FBI Director James Comey not to recommend criminal charges Clinton for her "careless" handling of top secret emails is a greater example. But don't discount the real result of Clinton endorsements from ultimate insiders like former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. These supposed instances of good news for Clinton are actually hurting her. In this case, didn't the real value in Tuesday's event come from President Obama's appearance? Wouldn't it have been smarter to avoid the appearance of impropriety and travel separately? Or why didn't they have Clinton greet the president at the airport and get that great photo op? For Clinton, not traveling on Air Force One has almost no downside. Why no one in the Clinton campaign who has authority realized this is surprising. More importantly, it was harmful coming on a day when favoritism and special treatment is already on the minds and lips of everyone following this election.