A Few Thoughts On President Obama's Decision To Visit North Dakota


According to media reports that broke over the holiday weekend, President Barack Obama will be visiting North Dakota soon. According to the Washington Post, President Obama plans on visiting the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in June.

There’s no word yet on which reservation Obama will visit,though his senior policy adviser for Native American affairs, Jodi Gillette, is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, where her brother is the chairman. So that might be a good bet, though most of the Standing Rock reservation is in South Dakota.

I have a few thoughts on the impending visit:

President Obama should visit the Forth Berthold Reservation. 

Not only would visiting Forth Berthold give President Obama the opportunity to discuss Native American issues, but he could also observe first hand the economic spark oil development has created there. The Fort Berthold Reservation produces about 30 percent of North Dakota’s oil production. They’re also pretty pro-fracking at Forth Berthold, where tribal leaders have questioned the federal government authority to regulate that drilling technique on their land.

On a less happy note, the reservation also has a much higher flaring rate than the rest of the state. About 40 percent of the natural gas produced on the reservation is flared, compared to less than 30 percent in the rest of the state. A lot of that has to do with the federal bureaucracy surrounding the development of gas capture infrastructure. It would be good for President Obama to learn more about that problem, and how the federal government to do as good a job as the State of North Dakota has done when it comes to keeping flaring down.

Something tells me, though, that North Dakota’s oil-driven economic success story is a narrative the President will probably want to avoid.

How will North Dakota Democrats react to the visit?

President Obama is not a popular leader in North Dakota. He got just 38 percent of the vote, compared to Mitt Romney’s 58 percent, in 2012. The only Democrat who won on the statewide ballot here was Senator Heidi Heitkamp, and she barely won by a margin of less than 1 percent of the vote which she won be campaigning pretty vigorously against President Obama. With 2014 an election season in which Democrats are hoping to breaking through a statewide Republican supermajority, a visit from Obama isn’t exactly what Democrats need. Will Senator Heitkamp be standing next to President Obama when he speaks in North Dakota? Maybe. After all, she’s not up for re-election again until 2018.

But I’d be very surprised if any Democrat who has a chance of winning on the statewide ballot his year made much of an effort to be seen and heard with President Obama while he’s in the state, including US House candidate George Sinner and Agriculture Commission candidate Ryan Taylor.

Will Obama talk about the failure of federal policy on the reservations?

Presidential visits to reservation communities are pretty rare. The last President to visit was Bill Clinton in 1999, when he visited the Pine Ridge reservation. Before that we have to go all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt visiting a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina in 1936. Maybe the rare visits are for good reason. Federal policies have been an abject failure on the reservation. For instance, the unemployment rate at Pine Ridge in 1999 when President Clinton visited was 73 percent. That’s incredibly high, but believe it or not it’s actually higher today, measured in the 83 – 85 percent range. That’s despite the availability of a raft of social programs available to Native Americans including universal health care.

The plight of America’s Indian reservations, even as the country around them has flourished, is black mark upon our national honor. But it has happened despite the vigorous implementation of the philosophy of social policy that President Obama and other liberal-minded leaders would bring to the rest of the country. When President Obama visits Indian country, he will be visiting an area where left-wing social policies have failed.

Will he acknowledge that? Probably not.