President Barack Obama was so close to the South Carolina state line in 2012 that had his Secret Service agents been smart, they would have hopped over the border from Charlotte, N.C., and into Fort Mill, S.C., to buy the cheaper gas for the presidential limo.
Yet the Palmetto State – despite being home to historic Charleston, beautiful beaches and celebrated, albeit tortured, college sports – remains one of three states the president still has not visited during his time in office. His avoidance appears to be a political calculation.
Obama ticked off his 47th state Wednesday when he flew to Idaho to promote his State of the Union address and check out a university engineering lab. That leaves just South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah as the states he has yet to visit during his presidency.
They’re not what you’d call a hotbed for Democratic support. Obama lost all three states by big margins in 2012.
South Carolina hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since backing Jimmy Carter in 1976. S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, is one of the most outspoken critics of Obama and his policies. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C, screamed out “You lie” to Obama during a 2009 speech before a joint session of Congress.
Democratic leaders in South Carolina acknowledge there may be little political benefit to visit from Obama, but they expect he will return to the state where he won a pivotal, though contentious, 2008 primary that included a public fight with former President Bill Clinton over the use of race in the campaign.
Why would the president come to South Carolina? That’s the question asked by David Woodard, a political science professor and pollster at the state’s Clemson University. He called the possibility “futile” and remarked that such a visit could actually fuel Obama’s Republican adversaries.
“I see absolutely no political purpose,” Woodard said. “If he’s coming for the seafood or the sunshine, that’s profitable. But if he’s coming for the politics, that’s about worthless.”
Aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama hoped to visit all 50 states as president. He noted the trip this week was to two red states, where the president wanted to illustrate that there “are some common-sense things” both parties can agree on.
“I do think the president would like the opportunity to visit all 50 states as president of the United States. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that done in the next two years,” Earnest said.
Since Carter, only one president, George H.W. Bush, has visited all 50 states in a single term, according to Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the United States Naval Academy who tracks presidential travel. It took President Bill Clinton both terms to visit all 50 states, when he narrowly reached Nebraska on Dec. 8, 2000, for a foreign policy speech, Doherty wrote in his book, “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.”
Then-President George W. Bush would have reached all 50 states, but he had to scrap a trip to Vermont, the one state he never made it to, because of the financial crisis and other more pressing issues, Doherty said.
“Time is the president’s scarcest resource,” Doherty said in an interview. “There always pressing things that he would like to do or ought to do than he actually he has time to do.”
Dick Harpootlian, a former S.C. Democratic chairman, expects Obama will come to South Carolina by the end of his time in office. Harpootlian said both Obama and the First Lady have told him personally on multiple occasions of their desire to come to the Palmetto State.
Harpootlian acknowledge there is little political benefit and said the trip would be more about nostalgia. He said Obama has good memories from South Carolina, where he won the 2008 state primary after losing to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. It was at a campaign stop in Greenwood, S.C., where Obama first heard the phrase that became a campaign chant: “Fired Up. Ready to Go.”
“He’s made no bones about it to me on at least, I want to say maybe three occasions, that he’s coming,” Harpootlian said. “And I take him at his word.”
As president, Obama has been to neighboring North Carolina, a battleground state, the last two election years. He’s visited several times on political visits and took the first lady on a romantic weekend trip to Asheville.
And in 2012, he brought the whole party apparatus to Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic National Convention. Obama spent the night at the Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge in the city’s southern suburbs – less than 3 miles from the South Carolina border.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.