President Obama escaped Washington this week to mingle with average Americans and raise money for Democrats, but the purpose of his trip has been lost in a haze of political headaches for the administration, ranging from the comic — a Colorado man offering the commander in chief a marijuana joint — to the serious, such as the president’s refusal to visit the U.S.-Mexico border despite bipartisan calls to do so.
Despite the distractions, Mr. Obama tried his best to keep the focus on economic growth and his efforts to address the growing border crisis during his two-day jaunt to Colorado and Texas.
After a meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, and other local officials in Dallas on Wednesday night, the president strongly defended his decision not to visit the border, a choice that has overshadowed every other aspect of his trip.
“There is nothing that is taking place down there that I am not intimately aware of and briefed on. This isn’t theater. This is a problem,” the president said. “I’m not interested in photo ops. I’m interested in solving a problem.”
By staying away from the border, Mr. Obama has invited criticism not just from Republicans such as Mr. Perry, but also from fellow Democrats. Some in the president’s party now suggest Mr. Obama has misplaced priorities, choosing political fundraisers and recreation over witnessing the humanitarian crisis on the border, where undocumented children have been flooding into the U.S.
That narrative began to take hold Tuesday night after the president played pool and drank beer with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a brewpub in downtown Denver.
“He was shown in Colorado [Tuesday] night having a beer, playing pool. If he had time for a beer and playing pool, I think he has time after the fundraiser to get on Air Force One and go down to the border,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who has repeatedly called on Mr. Obama to visit the border while he was in Texas for the fundraiser in Austin and another in Dallas.
Mr. Obama’s night on the town with Mr. Hickenlooper wasn’t the only problem the White House encountered in Colorado.
Mr. Obama’s schedule also included a fundraiser for Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, but even that turned into an embarrassment for the White House when Mr. Udall, who has sought to distance himself from the president, bailed on the event just hours before it began.
Critics say the administration has stumbled into one “unforced error” after another in the past several days and has allowed the president’s travels — part of his broader effort to reconnect with the American public — to become overshadowed by outside events such as the Udall fundraiser and the beer drinking.
Most important, they say, the White House has failed to seize a key opportunity to show leadership on an issue that has exploded in recent weeks and undercut Mr. Obama’s claims that the border is more secure than it has ever been.
“Udall avoiding the event is a particularly bitter pill for the White House to swallow. But then again they can wash it down with some beers at the bar and shake hands with supporters who offer the president a toke on their newly legal joint. Heck, what do they have to lose? Plenty,” said Dana Perino, who was a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush.
But, she said, the Texas border issue “is an unforced error by the White House.”
“They should have accepted Gov. Perry’s offer and went to the border, had a joint press conference, and made the governor part of the problem and the solution,” she said. “Instead, the a White House decided not to go to the border at all and to do some fundraising — with a hastily added meeting about the immigration problem in a city 500 miles away from the border. This is a mistake.”
Mr. Obama, while defending his decision not to go to the border, pressed Congress to approve $3.7 billion in funding to stabilize the situation there. He also asked Mr. Perry to persuade the Texas delegation in Congress to support the measure.
Before the meeting with Mr. Perry, the president went about his Wednesday business as planned. He attended the fundraiser for Mr. Udall and urged voters to re-elect the Colorado Democrat, calling him “a serious person who is trying to do the right thing and who has the values that we share.”
Earlier in the day, the president spoke in Denver and suggested that issues other than his economic message are getting all of the attention.
“Washington may chase whatever political story they think will get attention, but to me, the only story that matters is your story,” Mr. Obama said. “This is what I’m spending time on. This is what I’m fighting for. This is my opportunity agenda. I’m focused on how do we create good jobs that pay good wages, jobs in American manufacturing and construction, in American energy and innovation.”