Potential Impact of President's Trip to Arkansas

May 6, 2014

On Wednesday President Barack Obama, at the request of Democrat Mark Pryor, is expected to tour tornado damage in what will be his first trip to Arkansas since becoming President. 

Jacob Kauffman: I’m joined by Hal Bass a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University. Thanks for joining us.

Bass: Glad to be here.

Kauffman: Pryor, facing Republican Tom Cotton for re-election to the Senate, has appeared to be regularly distancing himself from the President. What are your thoughts on the political ramifications of the President and Pryor together in Arkansas as they survey Vilonia?

Bass: Well, a couple of points starting out. One, there is a distinction we often lose sight of during campaign years between campaigning and governing. I do think there are some governing aspects to this presidential visit. When presidents visit natural disaster sights they do so for symbolic and substantive reasons.

They’re there to console, they’re there to support, they’re there to rally, to empathize but there’s also a substantial federal assistance, constituency service dimension to the government’s efforts to respond to these disasters. What I think President Obama and other public officials are there doing is in part a little bit of administrative oversight into how the relief efforts are going on. In this sense I think that Senator Pryor will be insulated a bit from the opposition to President Obama that has been manifest in our state throughout his presidency.

Kauffman: The President hasn’t been to the state during his time in office. His only visit was in 2006 to campaign for Governor Mike Beebe. Much has changed since then…last week President Obama approved a federal disaster declaration for areas hardest hit by the tornado…you alluded to this in the previous question, what is some of that symbolism of his trip to Vilonia? 

Bass: I think it’s showing that he identifies with the needs and the concerns of the folks whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed by the disaster. In this sense, again I mentioned earlier, I see this primarily as a non-political, non-partisan visit but obviously there are political implications associated with it but I think it makes it a little bit harder to demonize President Obama.

I think the fact that he hadn’t been here since 2006 has worked in favor of his critics. People will see him on the ground reaching out to people whose lives have been upended here. I think that any politician that’s in that entourage is going to bask in kind of a glow of public empathy and public support.

Kauffman: With that in mind let’s get into a little bit of those implications…I know a lot of residents cringe at politics being brought into tragic situations like we have in these storm damaged areas but does the visit from the President highlight in anyway some of Pryor’s campaign’s critiques of Cotton for voting against some federal disaster relief funds for FEMA and Hurricane Sandy victims? Or do you expect those issues to mainly take a back seat during this visit?

Bass: Well, I think it may be an undercover implication here. I don’t think Pryor’s going to be calling direct attention to this over the next couple of days. I think it’ll be something that’ll manifest itself later on in the campaign. Where I think it works in Pryor’s favor is that it does fit in well with his own strong commitment, inherited from his father, to put Arkansas first. The idea is we are here because Arkansas citizens are in a time of distress and in a time of need and we’re doing what we can at the federal level to respond.

Kauffman: You’ve been hearing from political scientist Hal Bass of Ouachita Baptist University. Thanks for talking with us today.

Bass: Sure, glad to.

Kauffman: I’m Jacob Kauffman with KUAR News