New York Times
POSTED: 9:35 p.m. HST, Jun 19, 2013
WASHINGTON >> You might call North Dakota the antithesis of President Barack Obama’s political base.
Whites make up 90 percent of its population, which is fewer than one million people and mostly in rural areas. Its proportion of people 65 and over exceeds the national average. There was never a chance that North Dakota would give Obama its three electoral votes.
So Obama has not given North Dakota his time. It is one of six states he has not visited as president, along with South Dakota, Arkansas, Idaho, South Carolina and Utah. He has gone just once to Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Wyoming.
Obama’s near-complete absence from more than 25 percent of the states, from which he is politically estranged, is no surprise, in that it reflects routine cost-benefit calculations of the modern presidency. But in a country splintered by partisanship and race, it may also have consequences.
America’s 21st-century politics, as underscored by the immigration debate now embroiling Congress, increasingly pits the preferences of a dwindling, Republican-leaning white majority against those of expanding, Democratic-leaning Hispanic and black minorities. Even some sympathetic observers fault Obama for not doing all he could to pull disparate elements of society closer.
“Every president should make an attempt to bridge the divide,” said Donna Brazile, an African American Democratic strategist. “It’s a tall order. I wouldn’t give him high marks.”
Al Cross, who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said, “You’re president of the whole country.” By all but ignoring the state, he added, Obama has allowed negative sentiment toward his presidency to deepen and harden.
America’s political polarization has of course gathered force for decades, and Obama merely inherited it. His aides note, accurately, that he has faced concerted, implacable Republican opposition - including that of the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who pronounced his goal of ensuring a one-term Obama presidency. While a president’s destinations carry symbolic weight, the entire country sees the chief executive through media coverage wherever he goes.
But Obama burst onto the national stage as a bridge-builder whose biracial ancestry spanned the white Kansas heartland and emerging minority communities. His 2004 Democratic convention speech gained moral force by scorning the fact that “pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.”
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” Obama said then. “There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America - there’s the United States of America.”
As Obama’s presidential travel shows, his White House has sliced and diced as finely as any.
According to figures compiled by Mark Knoller of CBS News, an unofficial White House historian, Obama has visited the swing states of Colorado 19 times, Florida 30 times, Iowa 18 times, Nevada 17 times and Ohio 39 times. That precision targeting paid off last November when Obama defeated Mitt Romney in every swing state but North Carolina. His winning formula: higher margins than John Kerry racked up against President George W. Bush in 2004 among blacks, Hispanics, Asians, city-dwellers and young voters, even as he suffered larger deficits among whites, rural residents and older voters.
It was a practical adaptation to what Obama faced while pursuing policy goals on economic recovery and health care. Resistance ranged from traditional Republican foes in Washington, to the national Tea Party movement, to the “birthers” on the political fringe who refused to accept the legitimacy of his citizenship.
“I think that he was genuinely startled by the intensity of the polarization he encountered,” said William Galston, domestic policy director in President Bill Clinton’s White House. “He reacted to that in effect by saying never mind - I’m not going to beat my head against the wall.”
Bush traced a similar arc. He ran in 2000 as “a uniter, not a divider,” but later subordinated that priority to his divisive prosecution of the Iraq War.
That ultimately helped drive away Bush’s own campaign strategist Matthew Dowd. After breaking with the Republican incumbent, Dowd met with the candidate Barack Obama and told him, Dowd said, “I hope you’re going to be the president of the country, not just leader of your party.”
In practice, Dowd concludes now, Obama’s engagement with adversaries in and out of Washington has been too narrowly focused, “about a transaction and not about a relationship.” He chided Obama for giving short shrift to bridge-building in late 2010 when the president summoned him for advice after Democrats’ midterm election defeat.
“Why haven’t you used the social power of the presidency to do that?” Dowd recalled asking the president. “He didn’t push back all that strongly, because he acknowledged he could have done a better job.”
David Axelrod, who has advised Obama from the beginning of his career, says the criticism overlooks the inflexibility of Republicans’ determination to block his objectives on economic recovery and almost anything else.
“I don’t think he’ll ever stop making those points he made at the 2004 Democratic convention,” Axelrod said. “At the same time, he has responsibilities as president to get things done.
“A lot of where the president goes has to do with where he can influence the public to influence the people in Congress who are potential votes,” he said. “It’d be great for him, if he had the time, to barnstorm the red states and meet people. I don’t know how fundamentally that would change things.”
The sense of disappointment some feel extends beyond inattention to staunch opponents. Obama has not, for instance, traveled as president to the overwhelmingly poor, black Mississippi Delta, either.
Brazile sees the White House stuck “in this postracial box,” determined to present Obama as a leader who does not reflexively promote the concerns of fellow African-Americans over others. On substance, Axelrod countered, places like the Mississippi Delta have benefited substantially from his economic and health care policies.
Just months into his second term, Obama has time to elevate the unifying themes that propelled his initial emergence. Clinton, who valued presidential travel as a symbol of outreach, did not touch every state until he visited Nebraska six weeks before leaving office.
The historic fact that an African-American even made it to the White House, of course, marked a pathbreaking leap across the country’s divisions. But Brazile hopes Obama will do more.
“There will be a chapter on reconciliation” in books assessing his legacy, she said. But so far, “that chapter doesn’t have many paragraphs.”