On President Barack Obama's recent trip through the West, he enjoyed some typical touristy activities. He and his family watched Old Faithful erupt at Yellowstone National Park. The president cast a fly (unsuccessfully) in a Montana river. He gazed into the Grand Canyon.
By all reports, the president appeared to be genuinely interested. He asked intelligent questions about the West and its resources, and he listened intently to the answers.
It stands to reason that the answers he received could have been somewhat skewed just by the decision to allow some people near him (National Park Service employees, for example, surely good sources of information) and keep some at a distance. That divide may not matter all that much when discussing topics such as the geology of the Grand Canyon and the geothermal activity below Yellowstone, but did he get to hear the issues locals were interested in telling him about?
It makes perfect sense that access to the president must be limited. There is no benefit to the country in having him heckled every minute of the day, especially because the proponents and opponents of health-care reform have long since gone into reruns at town meetings across the country. He knows what people are saying about that, and he knows the proportion of people taking each position.
And his safety is a valid issue. Especially now, with tempers running high, the president and his family need to be protected from those few who are not so committed to civil discourse. Still, real life goes on.
Seeing the West, on the ground, is a good thing, because Obama has little familiarity with the interior West. Despite being well-traveled and raised in diverse settings, he is, undeniably, an urbanite. Being briefed on it is not the same as seeing it. Seeing it is not the same as living here, of course, and living here is not necessarily the same as trying to make a living here. Not all westerners can be employed as rangers in national parks.
It is disturbing, then, that pickers were told to leave a Grand Junction peach orchard so Obama's wife and daughters could tour a neighboring orchard while the president spoke about health care. Talbott Farms president Charlie Talbott said the Secret Service told his pickers to stop working and leave. If he'd been given more notice up front, Talbott said, he could have scheduled them in a different part of the orchard.
The peach season in Mesa County moves at a different pace than erosion at the Grand Canyon. Peaches that are not picked when they should be lose their value very quickly. Fruit growers have contracts they must fulfill. While Talbott may well have compensated his workers for their unscheduled time off - or more likely, given them more hours later, picking peaches that should have been picked earlier - most pickers who do not work also do not get paid.
How much more informative might the orchard tour have been if the president's family (or, better yet, the president himself) had been treated to a candid conversation about what happens when ag producers are unable to make hay while the sun shines, or pick peaches at the height of ripeness? What might they have learned from the worried expressions on the faces of all those whose fortunes, such as they are, depend on getting those peaches picked?
The president needs to experience that aspect of the West, as well. Here, like everywhere, a great many people depend on jobs that cannot be postponed, even for a president.