LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama is known for having a way with words, but some lawmakers from Nevada wish he would pipe down about trips to Sin City.
After sparking a firestorm of criticism from Nevada’s elected officials for suggesting that people saving money for college shouldn’t blow it in Las Vegas, Obama told U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a letter that he wasn’t saying anything negative about Las Vegas.
It was the second time since taking office that Obama singled out Las Vegas as a potential example of spending excessively.
“I was making the simple point that families use vacation dollars, not college tuition money, to have fun,” Obama said, according to the letter released by Reid’s office. “There is no place better to have fun than Vegas, one of our country’s great destinations.”
Obama said he always enjoys his visits to Las Vegas.
A White House spokesman referred to Obama’s letter to Reid and said the administration had no further comment.
Perception and reputation are sensitive issues for Sin City as it struggles to find footing amid a two-year meltdown of foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment. Tourism is the Silver State’s backbone, and several lawmakers said they were shocked that Obama singled out Las Vegas again after commenting last February that bailed-out banks shouldn’t go to Las Vegas using taxpayer money.
“When times are tough, you tighten your belts,” Obama said, according to a White House transcript of his appearance Tuesday at a high school in North Nashua, N.H.
“You don’t go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage,” Obama said. “You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices.”
The comments quickly sparked a flurry of reaction in the Silver State, which supported Obama in the 2008 election. Nevada had an unemployment rate of 13 percent in December.
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said during a hastily called news conference that Obama is no friend to Las Vegas and would not be welcomed here if he visits.
“I’ll do everything I can to give him the boot,” Goodman said. “This president is a real slow learner.”
Goodman and others are worried that Obama’s words will discourage visitors from coming to Las Vegas and depress the industry further.
“Enough is enough!” Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley said in a statement. “President Obama needs to stop picking on Las Vegas and he needs to let Americans decide for themselves how and where to spend their hard-earned vacation dollars.”
Nevada’s tourism has been hit hard during the past two years as consumers everywhere tighten leisure spending and companies spend less on meetings and conventions.
Reid, one of Obama’s closest allies, issued a statement headlined “Reid to Obama: ‘Lay off Las Vegas”‘ and was unusually blunt in his reaction.
“The President needs to lay off Las Vegas and stop making it the poster child for where people shouldn’t be spending their money,” Reid said. “I would much rather tourists and business travelers spend their money in Las Vegas than spend it overseas.”
Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, complained that Obama “failed to grasp the weight that his words carry.”
“Once again he has threatened the struggling economy of Las Vegas,” Ensign said, recalling what he characterized as Obama’s “irresponsible” comment in February 2009.
Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons and Rep. Dean Heller, both Republicans, and Democratic Rep. Dina Titus also disparaged the president’s remarks, while Republican candidates hoping to unseat Reid this year called for an apology.
One year ago, Obama commented during a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., that corporations shouldn’t use federal bailout money for trips to Las Vegas, the Super Bowl or corporate jets. Tourism and casino officials said the comment hurt the city as companies canceled meetings in Las Vegas and rescheduled them elsewhere.
Obama later said during a May 2009 trip to Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas that it was nice to get out of Washington and “there’s nothing like a quick trip to Vegas in the middle of the week.”
Goodman said he thought Obama had a “psychological hang-up” of using Las Vegas as an example of excessive spending, and that this time, an apology wouldn’t be enough.
“He has to step up right away and say, you know, he wasn’t thinking,” Goodman said. “Sometimes when he’s not using his monitors and reading what he says, he doesn’t think. And this is one of those times he didn’t think, and he should straighten out the record because he’s been here, he knows Las Vegas is a great place.