NEW YORK – As a measure of how politically fraught President Barack Obama’s Texas trip is Wednesday, Republican Gov. Rick Perry reluctantly agreed to a ritual public greeting of the nation’s chief executive.
The White House said Perry will welcome the president when he lands in Texas for a meeting with local civic and religious leaders about the influx of tens of thousands of migrant children along the southern U.S. border, before Obama heads to fundraisers for Democratic congressional campaigns.
The governor, who has accused the president of not caring “whether or not the border of the United States is secure,” will join Obama for the border meeting.
Perry and Obama also will have a chance to speak privately when they fly together aboard the presidential Marine One helicopter from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Dallas Love Field Airport for the group meeting, which starts at 5:55 p.m., Washington time.
The president is determined to “put aside partisan politics,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said en route to Dallas. “They disagree on many issues,” Earnest said. “The focus here is going to be on what common ground can we find.”
Their meetings come as Obama prepares to headline a series of fundraisers in Dallas and Austin Wednesday night and Thursday.
Obama has no plans to go to the southern border, with Earnest saying the president and his aides aren’t worried about “those optics.” Other administration officials have gone for first-hand looks at the humanitarian challenge emerging as thousands of children have crossed the border in recent months.
“The president’s well aware of exactly what’s happening,” Earnest said, and has “sufficient visibility into the problems” to understand what solutions “are going to work best.”
The president’s critics — including Perry, who sought the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 2012 and is weighing another run in 2016 — have seized on the moment as a symbol of what they say is the president’s inaction. And Obama’s encounters with Republican governors have their own checkered history — ranging from an angry finger-wagging incident in Arizona to a bipartisan embrace in New Jersey.
One of Obama’s most outspoken Republican critics, Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, has called the border crisis “Obama’s Katrina” -a reference to former President George W. Bush’s initial mishandling of the Gulf Coast damage caused by the 2005 hurricane, including an Air Force One flyover of New Orleans, which made the president seem detached.
“I’m sure that President Bush thought the same thing, that he could just look at everything from up in the sky, and then he owned it after a long time,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, said Monday on Fox News. “I hope this doesn’t become the Katrina moment for President Obama, saying that he doesn’t need to come to the border. He should come down.”
“If the president doesn’t address this problem pretty soon, it could be his political Waterloo,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, in a telephone interview. Suggesting that the president is avoiding the border, Munisteri said, “he doesn’t want to acknowledge his political failure. If he goes down there, it gives publicity to his policy failures of several years.”
In the White House invitation to Perry for Wednesday’s meeting, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has traveled to the area five times and plans to return Friday. The Department of Homeland Security said Johnson traveled Tuesday to Guatemala, the origin of many of the children who have fled their homes, traversed Mexico and crossed into the Southwestern U.S.
“There are people trying to turn this situation into a political football,” Cecilia Munoz, the White House domestic affairs adviser, said in an appearance today on MSNBC Television’s “Morning Joe” program.
It’s unfair to equate a humanitarian crisis with the natural disaster areas that Obama has visited, Munoz said, citing actions the administration has taken to shelter and deal with the refugees — including warning Guatemala that children transported by smugglers to the U.S. won’t be allowed to remain in the country. Wednesday’s meeting between Obama and Perry includes religious leaders working to temporarily shelter the children, who face hearings and deportation, she said.
Still, talk radio and TV are consumed with the juxtaposition of the president’s fundraising journey and the absence of a border tour.
“You’ve got to go down to the border, and if you don’t go down to the border, then cancel the fundraisers,” Joe Scarborough, host of the morning MSNBC show and a former Republican congressman from Florida’s Panhandle, said Wednesday.
For Perry and Obama, Wednesday’s meeting poses further political opportunities and obstacles.
“What has to be addressed is the security of the border,” Perry said on ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday. “You know that, I know that, the president of the United States knows that. I don’t believe he particularly cares whether or not the border of the United States is secure, and that’s the reason there’s been this lack of effort, this lack of focus, this lack of resources.”
While news coverage of their closed-door meeting will be limited to a “pool spray” of photographers at which a question is sometimes called out and answered by the president, the Texas governor — who had earlier refused an invitation to publicly greet the president at his tarmac arrival Wednesday — is certain to find some microphones after their meeting.
Obama too will make a statement afterward, Earnest said.
After initially declining a tarmac greeting of the president, the governor agreed today to welcome Obama.
“My understanding is that Gov. Perry will greet the president on the tarmac and the two will meet privately at some point prior to the roundtable,” Travis Considine, a Perry spokesman, said in an email.
Gilbert Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, called Perry’s meeting with Obama an act of political theater.
“This is Rick Perry’s side show,” he said. “It’s an attempt by Rick Perry to show people that he is presidential.”
Perry, who will retire at year’s end after 14 years in office, making him the longest-serving governor in state history, has worked to reshape his image since his failed presidential bid — a campaign that included being unable to remember during a debate the names of the three federal agencies he pledged to close.
For his part, Obama has a mixed record in his other meetings with Republican governors during almost six years in the White House.
Immigration also was on Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s mind when she greeted Obama at an airport arrival in January 2012 with a face-to-face scolding and wagging of a gubernatorial finger in the president’s face.
“What I’ve discovered is, I think it’s always good publicity for a Republican if they’re in an argument with me,” Obama said in an ABC News interview about the Brewer incident.
Obama’s tour of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 provided a lift for both the president, at the climax of a hard-fought re-election campaign against Republican Mitt Romney, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie initially faced criticism from fellow Republicans for embracing Obama at the height of the campaign. The Republican governor, telling news outlets that Obama’s response to the storm had been “outstanding” and the coordination with federal officials “wonderful,” said, “The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit.”
Yet the coordination of the two evolved into a widely perceived example of constructive bipartisanship in the face of a crisis, an impression serving Christie well if he pursues his own campaign for the party’s presidential nod in 2016.