Political Storm Dampens Obama's Return From Vacation
President Obama returned from his vacation Sunday night to a busy calendar, including the race to pick his successor, which he became embroiled in during his sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard.
Obama, who was urged last week by some critics to truncate his summer vacation in order to survey flood-ravaged Louisiana, will visit the Pelican State Tuesday – four days after GOP nominee Donald Trump flew to the region to hand out supplies.
Obama is expected to be on the ground in Baton Rouge for half-a-day this week to tour parts of what Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards described as a challenging recovery phase in the wake of torrential rains that began Aug. 11.
Recovering from the devastation in communities long familiar with hurricanes and natural disasters will involve months of federal, state, local, private and charitable resources and efforts, the governor explained in interviews over the weekend. Edwards encouraged Americans who want to help to donate to the American Red Cross.
Obama, who is back in Washington after a 16-day family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, was pulled into an age-old political dust-up about whether or when presidents should interrupt their leisure activities to comfort disaster victims. Presidential travel makes news, and heightened national attention means more aid.
And that’s not the only item on the agenda for his last five months in office – there’s a battle with Congress to fund the fight against the Zika virus, criticism of the $400 million payout to Iran, his upcoming trip to China for his final G20 summit, and the 2016 campaign.
The flooding in Baton Rouge this month competed for headlines and public interest alongside the summer Olympics, the roller-coaster presidential contest, wildfires in the West, and Americans’ preoccupations with their own vacations and back-to-school plans, as well as world events.
The White House insisted the president was in touch by phone with the governor and federal homeland security and emergency management officials during his golf-heavy interlude away from Washington.
“The president is mindful of the impact that his travel has on first responders and wants to ensure that his presence does not interfere with ongoing recovery efforts,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday afternoon as he announced Obama would travel to Baton Rouge when his vacation was over.
Trump arrived in the flood-ravaged area first, interrupting his schedule Friday to fly to Louisiana in an effort to contrast his concern with that of the president. He brought along running mate Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana.
Louisiana, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton won the state decisively in 1996, is among five states currently considered to be solidly or likely behind the New York businessman on the RealClearPolitics Electoral College map, based on polling averages.
Trump and Pence spoke with flood victims and first responders and Trump signed hats and T-shirts at a Baton Rouge church. During a campaign event in Michigan later in the day, Trump suggested the president was more preoccupied with his own fun than with Louisiana’s pain.
“Honestly, Obama ought to get off the golf course and get down there,” he said.
Trump’s new campaign manager, pollster Kellyanne Conway, said her boss’s visit to the flood zone demonstrated leadership.
“Leaders show up where Americans in need are,” she told CNN Sunday.
Hillary Clinton telephoned Edwards and issued a statement about the flooding disaster Friday, urging supporters to donate to the Red Cross and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, arguing relief efforts should not be interrupted with “distractions.”
On Monday morning, Clinton released a second statement saying she would visit Louisiana in the near future: "I am committed to visiting communities affected by these floods, at a time when the presence of a political campaign will not disrupt the response, to discuss how we can and will rebuild together."
Clinton, who in the past was quick to tackle community emergencies, such as contaminated water in Flint, Mich., and opioid and heroin addiction in rural communities, is scheduled to be in Los Angeles for celebrity-studded fundraisers Monday and Tuesday, and is expected to campaign in battleground Nevada on Thursday.
The president, during this week’s visit, will get “a first-hand look at the impact of the devastating floods,” which killed at least 13 people and damaged at least 60,000 homes, the White House said in a statement. Obama will underscore the federal government’s ongoing commitment to help Baton Rouge and Louisiana residents “rebuild their community and come back stronger than ever,” according to the president’s spokesman.
At least 102,000 people in Louisiana have signed up for federal assistance, according to state officials. More than $30 million in federal housing assistance has been approved for residents in the state. About 3,200 people remained in shelters as of Sunday.
Edwards, a Democrat, said Sunday he “had no complaints” about the administration’s response to the disaster and the aftermath. “We really need help,” he said.
Officials at the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency began coordinating with the state even before Obama signed a federal disaster declaration Aug. 14.
Edwards was asked Sunday to respond to criticism, including in an Aug. 17 newspaper editorial published by The Advocate that likened Obama’s R&R during flooding in southern Louisiana to President George W. Bush’s seemingly distant “fly-over” of the Gulf Coast in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina.
The governor, who called the visit by Trump and Pence “helpful” to raise public awareness of the “dire situation,” said he had asked Obama and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to travel after the initial emergency response phase in his state ended, so as not to divert needed resources from the devastated areas.
All presidential travel, including to ravaged scenes of natural or other disasters, involves planning by the U.S. Secret Service, security and travel escorts involving state law enforcement personnel and local VIPs, and arrangements for national, regional and often international news media during presidential events.
“I asked [Obama] if he could wait until the response was over and we got into the recovery phase, which I predicted we would do over the weekend, and certainly next week would be a better time for us to visit,” Edwards said Sunday. “But the president is welcome to come to our state any time that he wants to.”
In the wake of significant emergencies and disasters in the past, Congress has weighed additional federal appropriations. Lawmakers have been in recess since mid-July and are not expected to return to Washington until after Labor Day. Louisiana’s flood costs could exceed $1.5 billion, a significant price tag in the context of the state’s already wobbly finances.
Obama traveled to Baton Rouge in January, using the city as a backdrop for some of the economic initiatives he outlined in his is final State of the Union address.