The Washington Posttoday has a telling front page news story: "Obama"s travel mixes policy, politics: States with close electoral results getting most of his visits." The article is a stomach-churning revelation about why our current Electoral College system is such a disaster for upholding the principle of political equality -- and disturbing for showing how President Obama and his political team seem far more interested in turning the Electoral College to their advantage than reforming it.
The numbers are crystal clear. The President famously has said that there aren't red states or blue states, but only the United States. His travel choices suggest an amendment, however: there aren't red states or blue states, but only swing states. Here's how the Post reports it: "Of the 16 states the president has visited since taking office, nine shifted from the Republican to Democratic column in 2008. Five of the states are among the six that posted the narrowest margins of victory for either Obama or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and are likely to remain the most closely divided through the coming campaign cycles."
Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, told the Post, "As the president said famously, people aren't looking for red, blue or purple solutions, only those that will improve their daily lives." But Ari Fleischer, former president George W. Bush's first press secretary, was more straightforward. He said: ""A smart White House is a savvy mix of policy and politics, and in our democracy there's nothing wrong with it. If you're all substance and no politics, you lose support on Capitol Hill. If you're all politics and no substance, you lose support among the people." Fleischer fliply added, "If people don't like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their president more."
Right. It may come as news to some inside-the-Beltway types, but not every "spectator state" American has a second house in a swing state or can blithely pick up stakes to ensure their interests are given weight with the White House. The fact is that Americans are in great economic pain in all states and need to believe their president cares.
One might think that a Democratic president would highlight New Orleans' ongoing struggle to recover in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but Louisiana isn't a swing state - and neither are any of the four adjoining states. None have seen a presidential visit. Small Rocky Mountain states like the Dakotas, Montana Wyoming, Utah and Idaho are supposed to be getting something out of the Electoral College -- but because John McCain won them all even while Obama won the nation by more than 7%, they're not swing states going into 2012. None have received a visit this year. The same is true of Democratic strongholds among small states like Vermont, Maine, Delaware and Rhode Island.
The White House's near entire focus on swing states will not hold throughout the rest of the president's term in office, I suspect, but it's a lock that it will in the heat of the general election in his likely re-election bid. As I summarized in a lengthy commentary in the San Diego Union Tribune last month, more than 99% of campaign visits by major party presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the last two months of the 2008 campaign were in swing states representing barely a third of the country's population -- nearly completely overlapping with the swing states of focus in 2004 and projected swing states in 2012.*
The irony is that President Obama's home state of Illinois is one of five states that have adopted the National Popular Vote plan for president. His former colleagues in the Illinois state senate enthusiastically supported the principle that every vote should carry equal weight in presidential races. Who knows, perhaps the president himself supports presidential election equality. But you sure wouldn't know it by where his political team is sending him this year.
*Stay turned for our release of an updated Presidential Election Inequality report next month for full details on just how problematic the current Electoral College system is for our representative democracy.