President Barack Obama stepped into the role of consoler-in-chief today, as he laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery to honor fallen troops and called on Americans not to forget the war in Afghanistan.
“As we gather here today at this very moment more than 60,000 of our fellow Americans still serve far from home in Afghanistan,” Obama said at the traditional ceremony marking the Memorial Day holiday. “They are still going out on patrol, still living in spartan forward operating bases, still risking their lives to carry out their mission. And when they give their lives, they are still being laid to rest in cemeteries in the quiet corners across our country, including here in Arlington.”
Obama’s remembrance of fallen service members follows a May 23 speech in which he said the broad war powers Congress approved to fight al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks shouldn’t continue forever. In that speech, Obama said that the U.S. may be drawn into more wars unless the nation moderates its stance.
The ceremony today came a day after Obama’s visit to victims of tornado-ravaged Moore, Oklahoma, where he told those coping with the devastation and lost loved ones that the federal government is there to help.
Yesterday, Obama arrived in the Oklahoma City suburb to survey the wreckage in the wake of the tornado, which took the lives of at least 24 people, including 10 children.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” the president said in front of an elementary school where seven students were killed as winds exceeding 200 miles (322 kilometers) per hour ripped off roofs and twisted sheet metal around splintered trees and utility poles.
The school is now replaced with rubble including bricks, insulation, overturned automobiles and torn books and lesson plans. “Obviously the damage here is pretty hard to comprehend,” Obama said.
“As fellow Americans, we’re going to be there as shelter from the storm” for those affected by the tornado, Obama said. “We’re going to be with you every step of the way.”
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, who visited the damage with Obama, told CNN’s “State of the Union” earlier in the day that she hopes the government response will be quick enough.
“There’s a lot to be done here; A lot of businesses closed, a lot of people without jobs because their businesses are closed,” Fallin said on CNN. “It’s not just a couple of houses with roofs off.”
The president praised weather forecasters, first responders and the teachers who shielded students. He also issued a veiled warning to lawmakers in Washington in anticipation of fights over funding amid budget cuts, saying “we can’t shortchange that kind of ongoing disaster response.”
“I know everybody in Congress cares deeply about what is happening and I’m confident that resources will be forthcoming when it comes to rebuilding,” Obama said.
The May 20 twister was an EF5, the most powerful on the National Weather Service scale for tornado strength. The storm destroyed more than 1,300 homes and more than 47 nonresidential structures, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The storm may have caused as much as $2 billion in damages and affected 30,000 people, according to Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.
The storm, which was 1.3 miles across at its widest, touched down the day after two people were killed and 39 injured in separate storms in the state. At least 30 tornadoes were reported on May 19 from Illinois to Oklahoma.
The twister hit Moore two days before the second anniversary of the deadliest single U.S. tornado in almost 60 years, which slammed into Joplin, Missouri, about 225 miles northeast of Moore. That storm killed 161 people and caused more than $2 billion in damage.
It’s traditional for the president to upend his schedule in the wake of catastrophic events, yet such visits have been frequent over the last several months.
In December, Obama went to Newtown, Connecticut, days after the shooting massacre that took the lives of 20 children and six school employees. He spoke at a memorial service in April days after the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks that killed two people and injured scores more. Earlier this month, he attended a memorial service for residents and emergency workers killed in an April 17 fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, near Waco.
Tomorrow, he plans to travel to the New Jersey shore to survey the rebuilding and recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy devastated the coastline in October. Obama visited the area to meet with victims and first responders within days after the storm hit.
“It’s important for the people in these communities to understand that the entire nation is standing with them in their time of need,” Josh Earnest, an Obama spokesman, told reporters traveling with the president to Oklahoma on Air Force One.
There are still families displaced and small businesses unopened in the wake of Sandy, Representative Michael Grimm, a Republican from New York, said yesterday on CNN.
“You think the cavalry’s coming, and it’s going to take a long time because there is a bureaucracy,” Grimm said. “We certainly haven’t done enough, and it certainly is taking too long.”