After Atlantic superstorm Sandy ravaged the Eastern seaboard, leaving behind death and destruction, an unlikely partnership has emerged between the Democratic president seeking re-election and the Republican governor who once called him the “most ill-prepared person to assume the presidency.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the only person to greet President Barack Obama today when he walked off Air Force One in Atlantic City on a hastily assembled trip to survey storm damage and relief efforts.
Both wearing zip-up jackets bearing their names and titles, they shook hands, Obama patted Christie on the back and they boarded Marine One, the presidential helicopter, for an hour-long aerial tour of Sandy’s destruction in the state, a visit to a shelter and a walk along a storm-damaged street.
When they were done, the two men took turns thanking and praising each other.
Obama “has sprung into action immediately,” to get New Jersey the resources it needs, Christie said after they finished in Brigantine. “I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern.”
The president said Christie has shown “extraordinary leadership” and “has been responsive and aggressive in making sure that the state got out in front of this storm.”
Even as White House officials and campaign aides insisted that politics played no role in the visit, with six days left for voters to decide whether to re-elect Obama or replace him with Republican Mitt Romney, the storm-driven alliance was fraught with political significance.
“It’s obviously not the photo op that Romney wanted -- a top Republican side-by-side praising the president,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.
New Jersey was one of the areas hardest hit when Sandy made landfall Oct. 29 on the state’s southern shore. The 900 mile-wide storm swept across a region with 60 million residents, shutting government offices, transit systems and businesses and leaving at least 61 people dead.
Christie, who spurned calls to run for the Republican presidential nomination last year, was the keynote speaker at the party’s national convention in Tampa, Florida, and has campaigned on Romney’s behalf. Known for his “Jersey-style” way of confronting critics or those with whom he disagrees, he hasn’t minced words when talking about the commander-in-chief.
Just a few months ago, he said Obama was “posing and preening” as president, and called him a “bystander in the Oval Office.”
At a rally last week in Richmond, Virginia, Christie repeated one of his frequent lines of derision for Obama: “He’s like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership, and he just can’t find it.”
With the lights out for an extended time across large swaths of New Jersey, the White House and Christie’s office worked on arranging the trip once it became clear that a presidential visit wouldn’t take resources away from recovery efforts, administration officials said.
In a bitter and close presidential election fight, the praise from Christie and the photos of Obama alongside one of Romney’s most vocal advocates provides the president a rare opportunity to showcase bipartisanship and the power of the federal government to respond in moments of crisis.
Both are areas where Obama is able to draw contrasts with Romney, who has also been appealing to swing voters as someone who can work with leaders from the opposing political party and said during the primary that he’d transfer Federal Emergency Management Agency duties to state and local governments.
Obama’s New Jersey stop also gets him news coverage in parts of neighboring Pennsylvania, where his campaign has been seeking to shore up support.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that with the trip, Obama was fulfilling his duties as president rather than acting as a candidate for re-election.
“New Jersey was, by many measures, the hardest hit state,” Carney told reporters traveling with the president. “It is entirely appropriate for the president to visit New Jersey and receive updates on the efforts there to recover and to view firsthand the damage inflicted by Sandy.”
Since the storm hit, Christie has been generous in his praise for Obama and the federal response.
On the Fox News Channel, Christie gave Obama “great credit” for staying in touch with state and local leaders and getting them the resources they need. “He’s been very attentive and anything I’ve asked for, he’s gotten to me,” he said on Fox.
After viewing damage in the state yesterday, Christie said his focus wasn’t on the presidential race.
“It doesn’t matter a lick to me,” he said. “At the moment I have much bigger fish to fry than that, and so do the people of the state of New Jersey. So let the politicians who are on the ballot worry about Election Day. It’s not my problem.”