President Obama headed to storm-ravaged New Jersey on Wednesday, where he will be led by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP firebrand who has quickly converted from harsh critic of the president to effusive booster in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
With less than a week before voters go to the polls, it is impossible not to see the bipartisan pairing through a political lens. And for now, it’s one that favors the president.
Before jumping off the campaign trail to monitor the storm from the White House, Obama had made his closing case about trust. He could be trusted to do what he promised, he said last week in Florida, even raising the question of which candidate voters trusted to look after them when “something unexpected happens.”
The mega-storm has been Obama’s opportunity to show, not tell, on that point. And he is doing all he can to seize it. In the past Obama has stayed away from disaster areas for several days, out of concern about diverting resources needed by victims. There appear to be no such worries on Wednesday, when Obama is scheduled to drop in for a three-hour visit less than 48 hours after Sandy made landfall. Before he headed for New Jersey, Obama received a briefing on the federal response at FEMA headquarters. The Obama campaign is hoping the images of the president consoling victims will clash with the picture of his opponent. Mitt Romney is back out on the campaign trail on Wednesday, with appearances in Florida.
Obama is slated to tour parts of Atlantic City, N.J. The Jersey Shore is one of the areas most battered by Sandy’s wrath and images from Atlantic City are likely to drive home the devastation even for Americans living far from Sandy’s path. Parts of the iconic boardwalk are destroyed. Some casinos’ marquees are broken.
“The Jersey Shore of my youth is gone,” Christi tweeted Tuesday night.
Christie’s role in the political scripting of the storm’s response will be analyzed for days. A surrogate for Obama’s rival GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Christie last week called the Democratic convention full of “B.S. and said the president was “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue.”
“What the hell is the president doing asking for another four years?” Christie asked a crowd in Richmond, Va.
But that was before much of his state was upended by Sandy and its coastal towns and communities made dependent on the federal government for aid. Christie, who is looking at a tough fight for reelection in a deep blue state next year, has changed his tune, praising Obama’s response to the hurricane as “outstanding.”
Obama will hope to receive similar testimonials on Wednesday and he’ll likely return the praise, painting a picture of two men putting aside politics to get work done.
Still, a top Obama advisor insisted Wednesday that the storm and the president’s response to it are not about politics.
“This was a disaster of huge proportions and the president is doing what his responsibilities require, and that includes going to New Jersey,” senior advisor David Axelrod said Wednesday.
The storm situation has “passed a threshold,” he said, and tomorrow it will be time for Obama to get back out on the hustings.
“We do have an election on Tuesday,” Axelrod said. “We owe it to folks to make the final arguments, and we’re going to do that.”
On Thursday Obama plans to make stops in Las Vegas and Boulder, Colo.