President Obama will tour damage from the hurricane in New Jersey on Wednesday with Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and Mitt Romney ally who gave the keynote address at this year’s GOP convention.
The trip is not avowedly political, but images of Obama and Christie walking the New Jersey boardwalk side by side will inevitably be seen through the prism of the presidential election that will take place just six days afterward.
They also could pay political dividends for Obama —especially at a time when TV commercials from Romney have talked up his abilities to reach across the aisle, drawing a clear if implicit contrast with Obama.
Christie has been conspicuously effusive about Obama’s response to Sandy. He described the president as “outstanding” in the crisis during an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show” Tuesday morning. Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he said that “the president has been all over this and he deserves great credit.”
The news of Obama’s visit to New Jersey came just moments after the president made brief remarks about the storm which wreaked havoc on the East Coast and has paralyzed New York for a second straight day.
“The storm is not yet over,” Obama said during a visit to the Red Cross.
Obama, playing the role of consoler in chief, told those suffering along the Eastern Seaboard that “America is with you, we are standing behind you” and vowed to "”push as hard as we can” to ensure they receive the resources they need without red tape.
He said coordination between state and local officials has been “outstanding” and urged governors in the areas most impacted that if they are turned down, “they can call me personally at the White House.”
Romney held an event in Ohio to collect donations for storm relief, and he personally donated to the Red Cross. Romney’s campaign has encouraged others to do the same through Twitter, Facebook and his campaign website.
Obama canceled campaign activities Monday through Wednesday, flying back from Florida on Monday. He is letting surrogates do the overt campaigning for now, though his efforts as president to coordinate a response to the disaster in New York and New Jersey are meant to burnish his credentials as a candidate.
It is still unclear when Obama will reemerge on the stump. Aides say they are monitoring it on a moment-by-moment basis and that the president’s first priority is the handling of the storm.
In a press conference call during Obama’s visit to the Red Cross, federal emergency management officials echoed his message. They said that while the worst of the storm appeared to be over, the potential for strong winds, more flooding and additional power outages remained in areas from the New England coast to the banks of Lake Michigan.
“I don’t want anyone to think that the event is anywhere near over in terms of the weather,” said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center.
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Obama had made an “extraordinary” decision to make major presidential disaster declarations for New York and New Jersey before the storm had even ended. Typically those declarations are made after a more thorough assessment of damages, but the president decided to do so after speaking to the state’s governors overnight.
Other states affected by Sandy had received pre-landfall emergency declarations. Fugate said Obama had made an immediate presidential disaster declaration just once before during his term, when a tsunami hit American Samoa.
Fugate said FEMA does not report an official death toll for storms, leaving that to state governors. Asked how many people were left homeless by Sandy, he replied, “I wouldn’t even begin to guess.”
— Russell Berman contributed to this story.