Obama's visit to Florida shows need to mend fences over NASA

President Obama’s decision to visit Cape Canaveral on Friday even after NASA postponed the space shuttle launch highlights the need for the president to mend fences in a state stung by proposed cuts to the space program.

Florida is a swing state with a high employment rate that strongly identifies with the soon-to-be ending space shuttle program, and Obama has come under attack from Florida Republicans on the issue.

“Short of drinking orange juice while walking on our state’s beautiful beaches wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, there are few things more associated with the state” than the space program, a Florida Democratic strategist told The Hill.

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“That’s why it’s important to show he’s here and get the facts out about his innovative approach to space travel.”

Keeping the trip on Friday also allowed Obama to visit Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat shot by an assailant in January. Her husband is one of the astronauts on Endeavour, the shuttle that was set to launch on Friday.

Central Florida, where Cape Canaveral is located, is the swing part of one of the biggest swing states in the nation.

In 2008, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996 to carry the state. Despite sweeping Republican victories in Florida last year, Democrats think he can turn it blue again in 2012.

Obama carried Florida by 236,450 votes in 2008.

Republicans hope that the end of the space shuttle foreshadows a reversal of those numbers for Obama next year.

“The community there is not happy,” former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas told The Hill. “They believe the White House has not respected NASA’s budget or the assets of that community,” Cardenas said.

Florida state Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R), who is from the Brevard County where Cape Canaveral is, has said he is partly challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year because the Obama administration is presiding over the end of the space program.

The lone Democrat to hold a statewide office in Florida, Nelson has made a 1986 trip he took on a space shuttle as a member of Congress central to his political identity.

The White House sees Nelson’s prospects as tied to the president’s.

“As goes Bill Nelson in Florida, go Barack Obama and Joe Biden in Florida,” Vice President Joe Biden said at a March fundraiser for Nelson.

Cardenas estimated that 7,500 NASA employees who make an average of $75,000 per year would lose their jobs when the space shuttle program concludes after the final scheduled flight June 28. Those people might choose the Republican nominee next year over Obama, Cardenas said.

“Most of us see this as a very close race,” he said. “If it costs (Obama) 10, 15 or 20,000 votes, that’s a lot of votes in a state that’s going to have as close election as we’re going to have.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) sharply criticized Obama this week, writing that Obama’s visit would not bring back jobs that will be lost when the shuttle program ends.

“While it is an opportunity to celebrate Endeavour’s history and the brave people who have made it a proud one, it is also a bittersweet occasion,” Rubio said in an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel of Obama’s planned visit. “The president’s space policy is jeopardizing America’s longstanding commitment to manned space exploration. This has serious consequences for Florida.”

Rubio noted that Obama’s proposed 2012 budget cuts NASA funding by $1.2 billion. He called the proposal “a full retreat from America’s long-standing commitment to space exploration.”

But Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who managed Obama's 2008 campaign in Florida, countered that the decision to retire the space shuttles was made in 2004, well before the current president took office. 

“This is a president who has not kept secret he has a real affinity for the space program,” Schale said, noting that Obama often talks about trying to catch glimpses of shuttles returning to California as he was growing up in Hawaii. “I can't think of any president that has come down to the Space Coast three times in three years.” 

Schale also noted that the end of the shuttle flights does not mean the end of the space program.

“This is not the first time in the history of the space program that we've moved from one vehicle to another,” he said. “We went through this with Apollo.”

NASA said Friday that the earliest the space shuttle would launch now is Monday afternoon. The White House has not said if Obama, who also was scheduled to visit Florida on Friday to speak at a college graduation, will attend the rescheduled launch.

On Friday, Obama toured an orbiter process facility and view the space shuttle Atlantis, which will launch its final mission from the Kennedy Space Center on June 28.

During his tour of Atlantis, Obama marveled at the space program. 

“Think about that, eight minutes and you’re up in space,” he said to his daughters Sasha and Malia, according to White House pool reports. 

But perhaps illustrating the political problem Obama faces in Florida with the end of space shuttle flights, the NASA technician who gave the first family their tour Friday is scheduled to be laid off when the shuttle program comes to end in June.