Arizonans find lots to criticize amidst a few glimmers of praise
A huge rise in deportations. Regulatory overreach. Borderlands decimated by off-road vehicles. Operation Fast and Furious. More than four years after Barack Obama became president, liberals and conservatives alike have lots to criticize about what has happened in Arizona during his presidency.
When Obama visited Phoenix on Aug. 6, it offered an opportunity for Arizona politicos to reflect on the president’s policies and the impact his time in office has had on the Grand Canyon State.
Democrats praised the president for some of his actions, but questioned others, such as his border policies. Republicans condemned nearly every small act, but did point to a few bright spots. Meanwhile, organizations dealing with policies where state and federal interests collide took a more nuanced view of Obama’s record.
Home of the Sonoran Desert, mountain pines and the Grand Canyon, Arizona’s environment is not only a source of pride for the state, but a source of tourism and commerce.
But when Obama took office, the Grand Canyon State’s environmental protectors suffered a serious, indirect setback. Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, said the first act Obama took that slighted Arizona was inviting then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, to join his administration as the secretary of Homeland Security.
When Napolitano headed to Washington, D.C., in early 2009, Republican Jan Brewer ascended to the Governor’s Office, and ushered in a new era of harmful environmental policies, Bahr said.
“(Napolitano) leaving, coupled with a pretty hostile Legislature and a new governor who was fairly amenable to the ideas coming out of the Legislature on environmental issues, has led to some really terrible laws getting passed in Arizona,” Bahr said.
More recently, the president’s plan for climate change gave Bahr hope. Among other provisions, the plan envisions a federal government that will consume 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, which she said could be a boon to Arizona’s solar industry.
She said the fact that much of the president’s climate action plan doesn’t need congressional approval is a good sign that he is willing to use his power to do what Congress cannot or will not.
Bahr said the Sierra Club would like to see Obama use the powers of the office more often, including those allotted to him in the Antiquities Act, which allows the president, by executive order, to restrict the use of federal lands and designate lands as national monuments.
Bahr criticized the Obama Administration for allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act. She said there has been a general failure by the administration to step up and act aggressively to make sure animals have protection under the Endangered Species Act.
She also had sharp criticism of the administration for efforts along the border. Under the Obama administration, the size of U.S. Border Patrol has skyrocketed and borderlands have been decimated by off-road driving and other activities not necessary to the mission of the Border Patrol, she said. The miles of border fences between the U.S. and Mexico have increased, at times without regard for the natural surroundings, she said.
“If they have to put something up, they should look at vehicle barriers rather than these massive walls that destroy the hydrology, cause flooding on both sides of the border, don’t allow wildlife to pass, and obviously people still find a way (to get through),” she said.
On a positive note, there has been more action from the administration through the Environmental Protection Agency on enforcing provisions of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, Bahr said.
Arizona has suffered through some of the worst of the Great Recession, with a housing market that hit rock bottom and an unemployment rate that has hovered near the national average.
Those same EPA actions that Bahr praises, Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, condemns as anti-business. He said they have cost the state much-needed jobs.
Hamer said the EPA actions on regional haze — including enacting stricter environmental regulations on the Navajo Generating Station — are out of line with the science on the subject and is an example of the regulatory overreach that is a theme throughout the administration-controlled agencies.
And it’s not just environmental regulations — but all kinds of federal regulations that harm Arizona businesses.
“Unfortunately this administration has pursued an extremely active regulatory agenda that has created additional difficulties for businesses of all sizes,” he said.
One example of those difficulties for businesses, Hamer said, is the president’s signature federal health care law, known as Obamacare. It will create financial obligations for companies that have a minimum number of full-time employees by requiring employers to provide private health insurance for their employees.
Though the chamber endorsed Medicaid expansion on the state level, the organization opposes the Affordable Care Act. Hamer said the ever-changing rules, regulations and requirements of the law have created an unstable business climate in Arizona and across the nation.
“The uncertainty that law has created has been another negative for most companies,” he said.
But it wasn’t all bad reviews from the chamber. Hamer was quick to point out that the administration has taken several positive steps on K-12 education, embracing policies that Arizonans have long supported, such as encouraging charter schools. He also praised theadministration’s increased attention to standards and testing.
And he praised Arne Duncan, Obama’s pick for secretary of Education who was appointed in the first days of Obama’s presidency, as “one of the best secretaries of education the country has ever had.”
Hamer said the president has been aggressive on trade and pursuing policies that will benefit American manufacturers and exporters, which is important in Arizona because manufacturing provides high-paying, high-skilled jobs.
“After a sluggish start, the president seems to be more aggressive on trade packages… And we hope there will be a greater emphasis (on trade, manufacturing and exports) in his second term,” he said.
As one of the old Wild West states, Arizona has a long, rich history with firearms. Charles Heller, communications director for the Arizona Citizens Defense League, the main gun lobby in the state, has plenty of criticisms of the Obama administration.
But his first and biggest complaint is about the gun-walking scandal known as Operation Fast and Furious. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Arizona allowed American guns to be sold to known arms dealers supplying Mexican cartels, in the hope of tracking cartel leaders. One of the guns was used to kill U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry near Nogales. The operation was based from Arizona.
“We had hundreds of people killed in Mexico with those guns, we’ve widened and deepened the iron river of guns that the narco-terrorists obtain… and there’s that thing about Brian Terry,” Heller said.
He said while there was a similar gun-walking program under President George W. Bush, the difference was that the previous administration saw it was unable to keep track of guns and therefore shut the program down. The Obama administration’s reaction to the scandal was also a disgrace, he said.
“(In Fast and Furious) You had (ATF) agents realize this was designed to fail and they blew the whistle on it and were viciously, viciously persecuted by their own agency,” he said.
He condemned the administration’s aggressive prosecution of gun owners in a wide array of cases, including in the case of David Olofson, an Army reservist who was arrested by the ATF and prosecuted for knowingly transferring a machine gun after he lent an AR-15 to a friend who took it to the shooting range where the gun fired several rounds automatically. Heller said the gun was faulty, and the ATF pursued the case as part of its systematic crackdown on legal gun owners.
But there is one thing the president did that made Heller happy. In 2009, Obama signed a bill to allow people to carry guns in national parks.
As one of the four border states and home to one of the hottest areas for illegal immigration and drug trafficking, Arizona has a complicated relationship with the federal government when it comes to border and immigration issues.
The president’s record on immigration and border policy has been less than perfect, said Juanita Molina, executive director of Border Action Network, an immigrant advocacy group based in Tucson.
Molina was pleased to see the president’s executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed some young undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally.
But she noted that the number of deportations has “grown astronomically” since Obama took office, and the effect has been more families ripped apart because of their immigration status.
“The rate of deportations and the way it has impacted families in Arizona is going to have repercussions for generations to come. We’re talking about over 15,000 children who have been put into CPS (Child Protective Services) custody because of deportations,” she said.
The Border Patrol checkpoint along I-19, located 25 miles north of the border, has had a chilling effect on tourism to the border region, and border communities like Nogales have argued against the checkpoint since it was built as a temporary structure in 2007.
Molina said the checkpoint has scared off the foreign eco-tourists that boosted the economy in Santa Cruz County. It has slowed the delivery of trade from Mexico, hurt the economy and is a hassle for residents, she said.
But under the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security has made the checkpoints a permanent part of the landscape along many major highways across the Southwest border.
Molina was hesitant to say there has been more good than bad from Obama’s time in office, but with more than three years left to go, she said she is optimistic that his second term will bring real changes around immigration.
“The separation of families has been significant, but at the same time because of deferred action, because of the different possibilities that are coming up through the administration’s work, we’re hopeful that during the second term we’ll see some real changes in immigration,” she said.
Obama in Arizona
The Aug. 6 trip marked the sixth time President Barack Obama has visited Arizona since taking the oath of office in January 2009.
Feb. 18, 2009
Obama visits Dobson High School in Mesa to discuss his plan to alleviate the wave of foreclosures that was sweeping the nation.
May 13, 2009
Obama gives the commencement address to the 2009 graduating class at Arizona State University.
Aug. 16, 2009
The First Family visits the Grand Canyon, and the president delivers a speech to members of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix.
Jan. 12, 2011
Obama visits Tucson to offer his condolences following the mass shooting that left six dead and 13 injured, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Jan. 25, 2012
Obama visits the Intel Corporation complex in Chandler, highlighting high tech manufacturing jobs the company creates. Gov. Jan Brewer met him on the Sky Harbor Tarmac, creating the iconic image of sticking her finger in his face.