As Obama, Christie survey storm damage, politics is unavoidable

Obama and Christie, a key supporter of Mitt Romney, exchanged praise as they viewed the storm damage inflicted on New Jersey, while Romney, campaigning in Florida, voiced support for FEMA.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon his arrival at Atlantic City International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Atlantic City, NJ. Obama traveled to the region to take an aerial tour of the Atlantic Coast in New Jersey in areas damaged by superstorm Sandy.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visit the Brigantine Beach Community Center to meet with local residents, Wednesday, in Brigantine, NJ. Obama traveled to Atlantic Coast to see first-hand the relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy damage the Atlantic Coast.

President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie surveyed storm-damaged New Jersey together Wednesday, both from the air and on the ground, meeting with victims and swapping praise for each other.

The Democratic president called the Republican governor “responsive” and “aggressive” in preparing for hurricane Sandy before the storm hit.

“I think the people of New Jersey recognize that he has put his heart and soul into making sure that the people of New Jersey bounce back even stronger than before,” Mr. Obama said of Governor Christie. “So I just want to thank him for his extraordinary leadership and partnership.”

Christie, a high-profile supporter of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, also offered kind words for Obama.

“It’s been a great working relationship to make sure that we're doing the jobs that people elected us to do,” said Christie. “And I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state and for the people of our state.”

At any other time, politics would not be part of the story. Indeed, both sides called Wednesday’s activities nonpolitical. But just six days before the election, politics can’t help but be part of the equation. And it has created a particular challenge for Mr. Romney, who campaigned Wednesday in Florida and who has no governing role in addressing the storm.

Instead, Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, sought to clarify his position on the role of the federal government in disaster relief if elected president, and issued a statement affirming his support for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

“I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said in a statement. “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.”

Romney had raised questions last year about his view of the federal government’s role in disaster management, when he said in a GOP primary debate that natural disasters are best handled at the state level or by the private sector. In light of this week’s massive storm, which has caused damage estimated at $50 billion, Romney’s comment has reignited debate over his views on the role of the federal government.

In a conference call with reporters, top officials from the Romney campaign sought to play down Christie’s sudden new role as Obama’s sidekick.

“Governor Christie is doing a job. He is the governor of a state that has been hit by a very, very horrific storm,” said senior adviser Russ Schriefer. “He is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing as governor of New Jersey…. The president is doing what he needs to do as president. It's a case of a governor doing his job. That’s it.”

From the presidential helicopter, Marine One, Obama and Christie viewed the devastation on the Jersey shore – burned out houses, streets underwater or covered in sand, houses blown apart. White House reporters in a separate helicopter also surveyed the damage.

The town made famous by the MTV reality show “Jersey Shore” – Seaside Heights – was one of the hardest hit.

  “There was a carnival and a large pier that look like the storm took giant bites out of the ends of them,” wrote Reid Epstein of Politico in his pool report. “Houses flattened – not whole neighborhoods but scattered here and there. Wood fragments everywhere. The boardwalk gone except for lonely posts here and there. The whole town looks like a beach with houses sprouting out from the middle of their first levels.”

Obama and Christie also met with local residents at the community center in Brigantine, N.J., where they exchanged praise in addition to reassuring people that the government was there for them “for the long haul.”

"I want to just let you know that your governor is working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible everybody can get back to normal,” said Obama. “Hopefully if your homes aren't too badly damaged we can get the power back on and get you back in.”

Christie spoke, too.

“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,” Christie said. “We're going to work together to make sure we get ourselves through this crisis and get everything back to normal. Thank you for coming, sir."

Standing by was FEMA director Craig Fugate, whom Obama called “the best that there is.”

Staff writer Peter Grier contributed to this report.

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