by Julie Pace
BRIGANTINE, N.J. (AP)—President Barack Obama inspected Sandy’s devastation from high above Wednesday, viewing flooded neighborhoods, sand-strewn streets and a still-burning fire along the battered New Jersey coastline.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was waiting when Air Force One landed, and he and Obama, two figures in blue windbreakers, walked together toward the president’s helicopter to begin their tour. It was a tableau that seemed impossible a week ago—a president struggling to defend his economic record in a tight election, flying off to a non-battleground state to spend the afternoon in the company of the man who delivered the keynote address at Romney’s Republican National Convention this summer.
Offering presidential reassurance, Obama later promised residents at a shelter that the federal government was “here for the long haul.”
With Election Day less than a week away, Obama’s visit to view the aftermath of the rare autumn storm was layered with political implications.
After the aerial tour, Obama traveled to a community center in Brigantine, northeast of Atlantic City, where about 50 people had taken shelter and other residents were visiting for food, a hot shower or to power up their cellphones.
After both men doled out hugs and handshakes at the shelter, Christie said it’s “really important to have the president of the United States” in New Jersey. To the chagrin of some Republicans, Christie has lavished praise on Obama for his efforts in helping states deal with the storm.
Obama was equally effusive about Christie, telling residents that “your governor is working overtime” to repair the damage from the storm.
“The entire country has been watching what’s been happening. Everybody knows how hard Jersey has been hit,” Obama said.
Even though politics infuse every moment in the final week before Election Day, the White House sought to focus attention on the storm, which has given Obama an opportunity to project presidential leadership in the final days of the tight contest.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said there were no political motivations behind Obama’s decision to join his supporter’s rival.
“This is not a time for politics,” Carney said. “The president appreciates the efforts of governors, state and local officials across the various states that were affected by the storm, regardless of political party.”
During the helicopter tour, Obama and Christie saw a carnival and a large pier that had been damaged, along with flattened houses and fragments of wood scattered throughout neighborhoods. Parts of the New Jersey shore’s famed boardwalk were missing and, in one area, a fire was still burning and appeared to have taken out about eight homes.
As Obama and Christie flew over Point Pleasant Beach, sand and water could be seen covering several blocks of the community. But the president got a reminder of next week’s election from someone who wrote “ROMNEY” in large letters in the sand at the north end of the beach.
Wednesday marked Obama’s third straight day off the campaign trail. He canceled rallies across four battleground states and retreated to the White House to oversee the government’s storm response. Obama stopped by FEMA headquarters in Washington before heading to New Jersey.
Obama planned to return to the campaign trail Thursday, with stops planned in Green Bay, Wis., Las Vegas and Boulder, Colo. He planned to be on the road campaigning every day through the Nov. 6 election.