President takes one-hour helicopter tour over Atlantic Coast, viewing flooded homes and wrecked buildings
Obama skipped campaigning in battleground states in favour of visit to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s state
Gov Christie: ‘We’ve got a big task ahead of us that we have to do together. This is what New Jerseyans are built for’
By Mark Duell, Toby Harnden , Lydia Warren and Rob Preece
President Obama took time out from the campaign trail yesterday to visit a stretch of the devastated New Jersey coast and take on a role of comforter-in-chief that could be a major boost to his hopes of re-election next week.
The President was accompanied by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican bruiser and Mitt Romney backer who showered him with effusive praise for his handling of Superstorm Sandy, giving President Obama a bipartisan sheen that aides believe could help him secure victory on Tuesday.
Leaving Republican presidential candidate Mr Romney on the sidelines holding campaign events in Florida in which he had to pull his punches and barely featured on TV, President Obama travelled to Atlantic City in New Jersey to get an aerial view of the widespread damage caused by the storm.
The images of President Obama offering solace to New Jersey residents who had lost their home could be of incalculable political value in the final few days of the 2012 presidential campaign.
He was joined on the presidential helicopter, Marine One, for the one-hour tour by Governor Christie, who faces his own re-election bid next year and is widely believed to be laying the foundations for a presidential bid in 2016 should Romney lose this time around.
‘I want to let you know that your governor is working overtime,’ President Obama told victims at an emergency shelter after the tour. ‘The entire country has been watching what’s been happening. Everybody knows how hard Jersey has been hit.’
Governor Christie said: ‘It’s really important to have the president of the United States here.’ President Obama returned the compliment.
The politicians’ meeting came as people in the heavily populated US East Coast corridor battered by Sandy took the first cautious steps to reclaim their upended daily routines, even as rescuers combed neighbourhoods strewn with debris and scarred by floods and fire.
Mr Romney was forced to reassure voters, a week before election day and following the massive disaster, that his administration wouldn’t leave disaster victims in the lurch.
Map of U.S. East Coast showing deaths, damages from Hurricane Sandy, as of Tuesday, Oct. 30, 4 p.m.
With President Obama heavily involved in getting federal funds to those in trouble, the Romney campaign moved quickly to reassure the public it supports a strong program of storm relief.
Only last year, as Mr Romney hewed to the right while battling for the GOP nomination, he seemed to downplay the federal government’s role in disaster response.
‘Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” Romney said at a debate last June.
‘And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.’
Asked by moderator John King of CNN whether that would include disaster relief, Mr Romney said: ‘We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardising the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids.’
However Mr Romney had altered that position when he released a statement on the disaster yesterday.
‘I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters.
‘As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.’
Mr Romney had ducked a spate of opportunities on Tuesday to personally clarify his position and the statement essentially endorsed the current disaster aid system.
President Obama and Governor Christie ladled on the mutual praise on Wednesday as they toured the damage sites.
Governor Christie, who has publicly endorsed Mr Romney, said: ‘I want to thank the president for coming here today (Wednesday). It’s really important to have the president of the United States acknowledge all the suffering that’s going on here in New Jersey and I appreciate it very much.’
The President returned the kind words, telling the crowds of beleaguered New Jersey residents who had gathered that their Republican governor was ‘working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible everybody can get back to normal’.
By Tuesday night, the winds and flooding inflicted by the fast-weakening Sandy had subsided, leaving at least 76 people dead along the Atlantic Coast and splintering beachfront homes and boardwalks from the mid-Atlantic states to southern New England.
The storm later moved across Pennsylvania on a predicted path toward western New York State and Canada.
At the height of the disaster, more than 8.2 million customers lost electricity – some as far away as Michigan. Nearly a quarter of those without power were in New York, where lower Manhattan’s usually bright lights remained dark for a second night.
Governor Christie, who is a vocal supporter of GOP nominee Mr Romney, has changed his partisan tune after the storm, regularly singing President Obama’s praises in relation to the federal aid given toward disaster relief support.
‘The president has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency),’ Governor Christie told the Today Show on Tuesday.
Governor Christie later told news anchor Soledad O’Brien that President Obama ‘has been incredibly supportive and helpful to our state, and not once did he bring up the election.’
Governor Christie continued his new tact of effusively praising President Obama and the work that the federal government is doing in response to the hurricane, saying that the two spent a ‘significant’ afternoon together touring the Jersey Shore in Marine One.
‘I cannot thank the president enough for his concern,’ Governor Christie said at the 5pm press conference yesterday. ‘The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit.’
The governor said that the two have put their partisan differences aside and had spoken six times including their afternoon-long trip yesterday.
‘It has been a great working relationship to make sure that we are doing the jobs that the people elected us to do,’ Governor Christie said of President Obama. ‘I am pleased to report that he has sprung into action immediately while we were in the car together.’
The President was slightly more reserved with his praise, as he kept the majority of his remarks focused on the efforts of FEMA and ways for those who lost homes from the storm rather than his political rival.
‘Governor Christie has been responsive aggressive, making sure the state got out in front of this incredible storm,’ President Obama said.