Why Won’t President Obama Visit North Dakota?


In August 2013, the National Journal published an article by Amy Harder that begins:

“North Dakota is like an overachieving child who attracts the attention of everyone—except Dad.

“The oil boom taking over western North Dakota and transforming America’s energy landscape has prompted visits from people around the world—Germany, Turkey, Japan, Dubai, and elsewhere—to see what they can learn and how they can benefit.

“President Obama, however, has not visited the state since moving into the White House (although he did drop in twice during the 2008 presidential campaign).

“Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has a goal to change that, and she asked Obama earlier this year if he would visit.

“’He said he wouldn’t come in the winter,’ Heitkamp told National Journal while driving outside of Dickinson, a town of about 20,000 people on the edge of the oil patch. ‘That’s as much of a commitment—I think it’s really important for him to take a look,’ said Heitkamp, changing her thought mid-sentence.”

Given the winter weather this year, especially across the upper Plains, I am guessing that the President has not still visited North Dakota. But why, you might ask, as I did, would he be hesitant to visit that state in particular? Could it simply be the terrible cold and the unrelenting blizzards?

I’d like to suggest that it may be that the President isn’t a political idiot—that he has many reasons to expect that on a visit to North Dakota, he would be greeted less than warmly.

Yes, the oil and gas fields of North Dakota have been one of the boom locations in the revitalized domestic energy sector. But despite the fact that this surge in domestic energy production has occurred during this President’s terms in office—or, perhaps, precisely because of that fact—the Far Right has ramped up the “war on coal” rhetoric from the 2012 election, and even before the President delivered a speech on climate-related initiatives at Georgetown University, they began condemning those initiatives as a “war on American energy” and then a “war on America” itself.

Beyond the caricaturing of the President as the committed environmentalist that Progressives wish that he was but that he clearly has not been, the President’s re-election resulted from a coalition of three groups: young voters, racial minorities, and working women. Very little that has happened recently in North Dakota suggests that a Presidential visit would serve to highlight the President’s appreciation of the continuing support of those groups or to advance the issues important to any of those groups.

In the fall of last year, one of the few events in North Dakota to attract national media attention was the attempt by a White supremacist group to take over a small North Dakota town. At the center of the controversy has been Craig Cobb, a 62-year-old, self-described disciple of National Socialism. Cobb and his followers began quietly buying up property in and around the town of Leith, which is about 75 miles from the state capital, and when their intention to transform the town into a “racially pure enclave” were made public and stirred opposition among the several dozen residents of the town, Cobb and his followers attempted to intimidate those residents into silent acquiescence. That intimidation eventually put Cobb and several others in jail, where they are awaiting trial on various charges related to criminal menacing.

Interestingly, the prosecuting attorney has stated: “’There is no law against being a jerk. You have a constitutional right to be a jerk if you want to be. When you start bringing guns and threats into it, it’s beyond the First Amendment or anybody’s rational interpretation of it.’”

So, one might argue that this incident is not especially indicative of any widespread racial animus toward the President since the White supremacists have been rejected by the community that they attempted to control and are being prosecuted.

But this incident brings to mind several other singular demonstrations of racial insensitivity that cannot be said to characterize the general attitude toward race throughout the state, but that, nonetheless, might make any person of color think twice about visiting the state. Unfortunately, one of the most salient of those incidents occurred in a university setting.

When the President was initially running for the office, North Dakota State University briefly made the national news because a student fundraiser for diabetes research reportedly included two skits that offered blatantly offensive, ostensibly satiric depictions of then Senator Obama. In one skit, two White male students satirized the popular YouTube video “I Got a Crush on Obama.” One student, in blackface, represented Obama, and the other student, in drag, performed a lap dance while lip-synching the words of the song. In the other skit, two students were dressed as cowboys, and one, again in blackface and representing Obama, pantomimed having anal sex with the other, who was holding an Obama campaign sign. I suppose that that was intended to be some crude satire on Brokeback Mountain, as well as the President’s race. In other words, it was multifaceted in its offensiveness, even if it was all for a “good cause.”

The university administration was appropriately appalled and apologetic. But, although I am pretty certain that the President personally doesn’t hold a grudge—if only because he correctly picked the North Dakota State team to defeat Oklahoma in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament–I am fairly certain that when those creating his itineraries do a Google search on North Dakota, these kinds of news items stand out somewhat prominently among the search results.

Oh, and I would be very much remiss if I didn’t also point out that, over the past year, the state government has passed “some of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in the nation.”

Since a visit to the state and saying the obligatory complimentary things about the state could very easily be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of what has been occurring there, you can see that while there is very little political advantage to be gained by the President’s visiting the state, there is a great deal of potential liability in such a visit—even if he were to limit himself to some comments about the state’s contributions to our “energy independence’ and “national security.” In that case, Progressives would certainly argue that such an endorsement of fracking mindlessly ignores both the environmental damage that it is doing and the need to develop the renewable, alternative energy sources whose broad adoption is being delayed by this late re-embrace of fossil fuels.

And, of course, the Far Right would accuse the President of not only being “un-American” and “anti-American” but also of being duplicitously so: that is, they will assert that nothing that he says can be believed because if he is not confirming their caricatures of him, he must be lying.

Of course, in many ways, the President has remained such an inscrutable and unpredictable figure to many of those in his own base, that it is all too possible that the he may simply be waiting for Spring to come to the northern Plains before he sets out on a visit.




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