During President Obama’s whirlwind trip to New Jersey Sunday afternoon to examine tropical storm Irene recovery efforts, his roles as consoler-in-chief and candidate for re-election were both on display.
The trip took Mr. Obama to a state which supported him solidly in 2008 but which since has elected Chris Christie, a high-profile Republican, as governor. And a Quinnipiac University poll released in August found that 52 percent of New Jersey voters disapproved of Obama’s performance in office.
But the President’s critics did not seem to be those who turned out at Mr. Obama’s three whirlwind stops in Wayne and Paterson, New Jersey. Friendly crowds lined the streets along his motorcade route and there were no overtly negative signs in sight. But one poignant sign along the president’s route said “Help Us.”
Accompanied by Gov. Christie, the President first headed to Fayette Avenue in Wayne. The residential area was hit by flooding from the Pompton River. Homes on both sides of the street were heavily damaged and there was debris – drywall, refrigerators, and siding – on both sides of the avenue.
The Secret Service blocked off the avenue and Obama walked along talking to residents. At 172 Fayette, Obama stopped to talk to Francisco Alarco, his wife, and two teen-aged sons. Their house was badly damaged. They had electricity but no telephone or cable service.
Across the street, Obama stopped to talk to a woman whose dog began yapping at the swarm of press and neighbors who crowded around the damaged home. “I’ll sic Bo on you,” the president quipped.
Mr. Obama also stopped at the home of a shirtless man with both arms covered with tattoos. “We’ll do everything we can,” to help, Obama said. In addition to Gov. Christie, Obama was accompanied by the state's two US Senators – Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg.
Both consoler and candidate were on display at the next stop, the Temple Street Bridge in Paterson. Last Sunday, the Passaic River crested at 14 feet – twice its flood stage, the White House said. Even a week later, the river under the bridge flowed swiftly and debris lined the bridge.
After walking along the bridge to view the damage and talk to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, Obama came to one end of the bridge and delivered remarks to the assembled crowd and press.
First, in his consoler role, Obama said the trip “gives you a sense of the devastation that's taken place not only here in New Jersey but in upstate New York and Vermont and a whole range of states that were affected by Hurricane Irene.” He added, “The main message that I have for all the residents not only of New Jersey but all those communities that have been affected by flooding, by the destruction that occurred as a consequence of hurricane Irene is that the entire country is behind you and we are going to make sure that we provide all the resources that are necessary in order to help these communities rebuild.”
But there were clear political overtones in what followed.
“And I know that there's been some talk about whether there's going to be a slowdown in getting funding out here, emergency relief,” he said. “As President of the United States, I want to make it very clear that we are going to meet our federal obligations, because we're one country, and when one part of the country gets affected … then we come together as one country and we make sure that everybody gets the help that they need.”
The reference to delayed aid referred to comments House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made last week. He told Fox News that additional funds for disaster aid would require cuts elsewhere. As if to underscore the point, a reporter noted that “Congressman Cantor has talked about offsetting budget cuts.” The president replied: We're going to make sure resources are here. All right?”
Cantor will play a powerful role in determining the fate of the job-creating proposals Obama is slated to unveil in a speech to Congress Thursday evening.
In the president’s final stop in New Jersey, he was driven to the parking lot at a local Lowe’s hardware store where several hundred people had gathered.
The area is being used as a recovery center for those affected by Irene. People stood alongside tables where relief aid – ice, peanut butter, apple juice – were being handed out, waiting to shake the president’s hand. Reporters were kept far enough back so we could not hear what Mr. Obama was saying. But the reaction was clearly enthusiastic, with people snapping pictures with the president and jostling for a position near him.
Obama was coming off a week where the government reported that the nation created no net jobs in August – grim news both economically and politically. So the warm response from voters in the crowded disaster- relief staging area in an economically depressed city probably provided some consolation to the consoler-in-chief.