President Obama's economic road show: Why the bus?

To promote his jobs bill, Obama is rolling down the highway this week in a $1.1 million black bus, code-named 'Stagecoach.' The bus, it seems, has some big assets over Air Force One or the traditional motorcade.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama climbs aboard his bus after meeting diners at the Countryside Barbecue restaurant in Marion, North Carolina, on Monday. Obama began a three day bus trip to North Carolina and Virginia on Monday to promote his American Jobs Act that faces congressional approval.

President Obama is on a bus tour of North Carolina and Virginia at the moment, in case you haven’t heard. He’s traveling through these politically important Southern states in an attempt to promote his jobs bill. But our question here is a simple one: Why the bus? What’s with the wheels-on-the-open-road attitude?

Mr. Obama has already got his own airplane. Wouldn’t that be an easier way to get around?

Well, yes, Air Force One might be quicker. It might be easier to protect, as well. When the president is aboard the federal government’s new $1.1 million black bus, its Secret Service call sign is reportedly “Stagecoach,” implying a vehicle rolling through dusty and slightly hostile territory as it travels from one town to the next.

But a bus has at least one big thing going for it, politically speaking. Two words: “rolling” and “advertisement.”

Obama’s bus cavalcade is a mobile campaign poster in a way that an airplane isn’t. It’s visible, it says “Obama,” and its travels are covered by local media in a sort of breathless he’s-almost-here manner that bypasses the snark of the national press.

Bill Clinton was a master of this genre. Remember the Clinton-Gore bus tour of ’92 that was, as one New York Times reporter described it, “a free commercial on wheels”?

“Riding the bus may seem like a throwback, but Democrats say it is the wave of the future in Presidential campaigns. It is more successful than the conventional hopping from airport to local television studio, a technique perfected by the Republicans and copied by the Democrats to bypass the less flattering national press,” wrote Times political correspondent Richard Berke back in August 1992.

That’s why Sarah Palin opted for a bus in her “One Nation” tour this summer. Maybe she was going to run for president, and maybe she wasn’t, but one thing she surely wanted to do was get as much attention as possible for the Palin brand.

Other semirecent political bus tourists include Mitt Romney’s five sons, who rode the “Mitt Mobile” on a 3,500-mile trip through all of Iowa’s counties in 2007. (Mr. Romney himself was forced to apologize after he compared his progeny’s travels with soldiers’ service in Iraq.)

President George W. Bush’s economic team, including then-Secretary of the Treasury John Snow, took a road trip through Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2003 to promote administration policies. Their luxury bus had a mirrored ceiling and was reportedly used by the band Aerosmith after the politicos were done with it.

The pioneering Clinton-Gore road show of 1992 covered 1,000 miles and included 28 vehicles, of which four were press buses. A security helicopter flew overhead.

That sounds a little like the rolling entourage of which an incumbent president may boast. Of course, Mr. Clinton did not have anything like Obama’s new Secret Service bus, which is black, armored, probably armed, and reportedly is pressurized to guard against lethal fumes from the outside.

“The bus is pretty hard to miss,” Obama said Monday at his first stop in Asheville, N.C.

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