Thursday, December 29, 2011

Presidential Visit Calculus

“Presidential Visit Calculus” by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Marianas Variety

The recent visit, but not really a visit by President Barack Obama to the World’s Largest Gas State Where America’s Day Begins caused a bit of a stir. There was a demonstration of more than 50 people at the front gates of Anderson while his plane was refueling. There have been debates about whether this counts as a visit or not. Furthermore, is Guam right to expect the “most powerful” man in the world to give it the time of day? Or is it just being selfish and trying to steal away the time of the busiest man in the world? At a time like this, it is probably important to reflect on the calculus of Presidential visits.

Presidential stops are meant to enhance a Commander and Chief’s reputation. They are meant to give him a little boost, some extra political capital each time he leaves Washington and gets out to eat apple pie with Joe and Jane Six Pack. The calculus could be reduced to a handful of possible equations. For example: Want a shot in the arm for sagging poll numbers? Try going to a safe state and have a huge self-love rally! Worried about 2012? Go to a battleground state and act moderate and down-to-earth to reach out to the independent voter! Want to increase polling support for a particular issue? Go to a place that symbolizes that issue and give a fiery speech about it!

There are also negative dimensions to this calculus, as there is a list of places where the President can visit and the journey would actually work against him and hurt him, in and of itself. By this I don’t mean that the gaffes there might be brutal, but rather that what the President actually says or does there is beside the point. Even if the President has an excellent photo-op there, and shakes plenty of hands and kisses plenty of babies, the problem is simply that he went there in the first place.

The last two states in the union, when they are visited it can create some small grumbles. When the President returns “home” to Hawai’i, the Conservative echo chamber reliably insinuates that he is relaxing too much and wasting tax payer time by being in this faraway island that is not really America. But, the visiting of an island territory, a colony, can potentially cause a lot of problems. Wherever the President goes within the 50 states his visit can be explained through pandering and vote-gathering. He is shoring up support from blue states, reaching out to voters in purple or red states. Even Puerto Rico, a fellow US colony, who does not have votes, can nonetheless be justified as an important site to visit. The island is full of Puerto Ricans, who have connections to the millions of Puerto Ricans living throughout the US, and frankly everyone, Democrat and Republican wants more Latino votes.

But a Presidential visit to Guam serves no political purpose. The people there don’t vote, can’t vote. There are no important minorities there that need to be reached out to in order to get out their votes. There are bases and strategic interests there, but that means that Defense secretaries come to Guam and have photo-ops, not Presidents.

If you recall the 2008 Democratic primary, it was a very tight race, where a huge number of races and places that normally don’t matter, were suddenly important. Hillary Clinton and Obama were very close in terms of delegate numbers, and so every single delegate, no matter where they came from, seemed to count. This resulted in Guam getting phone calls from candidates and Obama’s campaign even opening up an office in Hagåtña. Obama won by a slim margin, and although everyone did celebrate how wonderful it was that Guam got to participate in the process, there were some reservations. They were quiet for the most part, but are instructive of the place that Guam has in the US.

For example, on the liberal blog The Daily Kos, the owner remarked on the participations of territories in the selecting of a President, that it is nice, but “…there's no reason why in future nominating contests, any state in our union should take a back seat to a territory.” There were other murmurs of discontent as well, as people questioned whether those who are not really states and can’t really vote for President, should have a role in deciding who gets to run for President or who becomes President?

Even if we may not like these points, they are nonetheless true. This is part of Presidential visit calculus and part of our colonial status. The President exists to visit those who “elect” him and those who are actually “American” first, and we, like the status that we get from being a colony, will eternally be second.

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