President Obama’s trip to Las Vegas comes after his most recent comments discouraging Americans from visiting the city, but damage control of another kind is the reason for his arrival.
The president’s whirlwind visit (Feb. 18-19) includes a series of visits with business leaders and residents to discuss solutions to improving the economy, followed by a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.
Obama’s Feb. 2 comment at a town hall meeting in Nashua, N.H.—“You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college”—was the second in a year citing the city as an inappropriate place to spend money.
After the first comment last February, when he said companies receiving federal bailout money shouldn’t be taking the corporate jet to Vegas, Obama made nice when he came to Nevada in May, saying “there’s nothing like a quick trip to Vegas in the middle of the week.”
This time, Obama made nice even quicker, dashing off a note that day to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, reminding him “I wasn’t saying anything negative about Las Vegas. … There is no place better to have fun than Vegas, one of our country’s great destinations.”
But critics were not impressed. Democratic members of Nevada’s congressional delegation rose up to criticize the comments. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he wants the president to “straighten this out. If not, he’s not welcome in my city, as far as I’m concerned.”
Governor Jim Gibbons also chimed in. “I have lost my sense of humor about this. It is no longer funny,” he said. “It is not acceptable. I notice that there are 48 states in this country that have some form of gaming or lottery or whatever. He did not dis on any of those cities, including Chicago, Illinois.”
Las Vegas certainly doesn’t need any more problems, but it’s unlikely the president’s comments will have much impact on business—or that there are many people out there who were just about to book tickets to Vegas and changed their minds. “Their decision to come to Las Vegas is not going to be based on Obama [telling] them not to go,” UNLV political science professor David Damore says. “But if Goodman and Gibbons can get attention, they’re going to do it.”
Lost in the shuffle is the very thing Obama is coming to town to talk about—jobs. The picture in Nevada continues to be bad. According to the state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, the unemployment rate as of December had risen to 13 percent, which means about 176,000 Nevadans are unemployed. It’s the highest jobless rate since September. The department runs several Job Connect placement offices in the Valley; the largest is on Maryland Parkway. Inside the airy office, a board is filled with 600-plus job listings—but some listings need more than one person, so the total number of jobs available is closer to 1,200.
The week prior to the president’s visit was actually a relatively light one. There weren’t many job seekers on Feb. 12. Hal Bingham, a program specialist, wasn’t quite sure why, but it may be a sign things are getting better. But what’s probably more pressing than Obama’s town-hall comments is Nevada’s nearly $900 million deficit. “If we want to hold someone accountable for our economy we should look at home,” says Yvette Williams, chair of the Clark County Democratic Black Caucus.
Still, presidential influence works in strange ways. “It affects the attitude of the people out there and their sense of hope,” Bingham says, “and it affects the employers, who might want to list a job. ”
If Obama manages to slip in a visit to CityCenter—he was invited to the resort’s opening in December—he may make amends for telling folks to stay away from Sin City. “That will do more good than any comment he made in New Hampshire,” Damore says.
And both the president and Las Vegas can use some positive spin right about now.