BRIGANTINE, N.J. -- Less than a week before a presidential election, when the biting and sneering is at its worst, a bipartisan lovefest broke out Wednesday on the Jersey Shore. Only a hurricane could sweep in this sort of political shift.
President Obama joined New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for a tour of the storm-ravaged coast here, praising his newfound Republican ally as “responsive and aggressive” in his efforts to make sure his state “got out in front of this incredible storm.”
Christie, in turn, praised the Democratic president for the “great working relationship,” and for the “personal concern and compassion” he has shown for the local residents.
The men have staked out opposite sides of most major political battles, but they found common cause in projecting bipartisan teamwork on Wednesday.
The president is days away from election day in a deadlocked race that his campaign argues will come down to “trust.” The governor of a deep blue state is facing the sort of major crisis that could define both his reelection next year -- and possibly his career.
Last week, Christie, a surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Obama was in need of “a clue.” This week, the governor and the president, bound by dire circumstances and political calculus, were partners.
The situation allowed Obama to display his command of the levers of incumbency. He talked about deploying Navy ships and C-130s as a phalanx of emergency and national security officials stood behind him like supporting cast.
But it was Christie’s presence that shed a bipartisan light on the moment, from the time Obama arrived until the president’s departure a few hours later.
When Air Force One flew in for the afternoon, Christie waited alone on the tarmac at the Atlantic City airport. The president greeted him with a handshake, a few pats on the arm and a look of sympathy.
The two men boarded the president’s Marine One helicopter and headed north to survey the flooding, wrecked businesses and beach sand that has gobbled up whole neighborhoods. The tour of the damage lasted more than an hour and was private. It wasn’t clear if Obama noticed where someone had written “Romney” in the sand.
Christie said that as they rode from one place to another in the presidential limo, he listed for the president several things needed to aid in recovery.
Obama immediately picked up the phone and made some calls, Christie said as he and the president spoke before cameras late in the afternoon.
In that public appearance, Obama said he will not tolerate red tape or bureaucracy in response to the emergency, and that he has imposed a “15-minute rule” for administration officials answering phone calls from Christie and other state, county and local officials.
“If they need something,” Obama said, “we figure out a way to say ‘yes.’”
Obama and the governor visited a community center now serving as a shelter for evacuees. The duo heaped praise on each other, with the governor telling the crowd that he knows Obama “means it” when he says he’s working hard and Obama assuring the crowd that Christie is “working overtime” for them.
The entire country is with you, Obama told a group of evacuees at the center. One man joked that his boss was an exception.
“If you need me to call, you let me know,” the president said, offering a laugh line that only barely seemed like a joke, given how hard the White House has worked to show the president personally engaged in dealing the storm and its aftermath.
The White House argued there was nothing political about the president’s visit. Obama was there to witness the damage for himself, hear firsthand from local officials and monitor the response, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The president regularly delays trips to disaster zones by several days out of concern for diverting resources from victims. But the White House insisted that the New Jersey trip did not steal local officials’ time or money away from the recovery effort. The president didn’t go to New York, Carney said, because of the “resource allocation issue.”
Obama’s top campaign advisor also insisted that the president’s response to the storm is not about politics.
“This was a disaster of huge proportions, and the president is doing what his responsibilities require,” senior advisor David Axelrod said, “and that includes going to New Jersey.”
Nonetheless, storm victims picked up the not-so-subtle message about the president’s care and concern.
“He’s not just talking, he’s here doing something,” said 70-year-old retired firefighter Tucker Smith, as he watched the president dole out hugs and handshakes to evacuees.
Aside from landing at Atlantic City airport, the tour skirted the community, whose mayor has had a public spat with the governor over evacuation policies.
Between Obama and Christie, though, there was only agreement on the touchy subject of evacuation.
As the two spoke publicly late Wednesday afternoon, Christie jokingly chided residents who ignored his admonition to “get the hell out” in advance of the storm.
Obama nodded toward Christie as he praised the first responders, using the governor’s salty language to describe them as “folks who were in here shuttling out people who were supposed to get the hell out and didn’t.”
Christie nodded back in his direction vigorously.