By David Madden
BRIGANTINE, N.J. (CBS/AP) — President Barack Obama, swooping in for a somber look at Sandy’s storm-whipped destruction, pledged to the hurting people of New Jersey and beyond on Wednesday that “we are here for you and we will not forget.”
Not forgotten, either, were the unspoken political implications of Obama’s tour just six days from the election.
Commanding the federal response to the disaster, Obama spent a day doling out hugs, handshakes and promises of military might to help. And he soaked in the praise of one of Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s top surrogates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion,” Christie said with Obama at his side.
During a helicopter tour, a talk with displaced residents and a walk along a battered street, Obama saw Sandy’s massive punch.
From high above, Obama viewed flattened houses, flooded neighborhoods, sand-strewn streets and a still-burning fire along the battered New Jersey coastline. Parts of the New Jersey shore’s famed boardwalk were missing.
In a community center now serving as a shelter, Obama and Christie worked the room. About 50 people have found comfort there while other residents came in and out for a meal, a hot shower or a chance to power up their cell phones. After press left the shelter, Obama passed out White House-emblazoned boxes of M&Ms to the kids.
And in a waterfront neighborhood in Brigantine, Obama and Christie walked a lonely street piled with debris.
He encountered a tearful Donna Vanzant, the owner of the marina.
“It’ll be ok,” the president said, hugging Vanzant. “Everyone’s safe, right? That’s the most important thing.”
In his most formal comments, Obama sought to project leadership in a crisis, delving deep into the details of the federal response. He spoke of steps taken to position generators and water, and to use military planes and navy ships to move assets.
And he said he ordered his staff to follow a “15 minute rule.” He said that meant his staff had to respond to any state or local official who calls within that time frame. “If they need something, we figure out a way to say yes,” he said.
The federal government, Obama said, is “here for the long haul.”
The president’s tour guide was Christie, a rising Republican figure who joined Obama on a Marine One helicopter ride over the region.
Obama was equally effusive about Christie, telling residents that “your governor is working overtime” to repair the damage from the storm.
“The entire country has been watching what’s been happening. Everybody knows how hard Jersey has been hit,” Obama said.
Even though politics infuse every moment in the final week before Election Day, the White House sought to focus attention on the storm, which has given Obama an opportunity to project bipartisanship and presidential leadership.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said there were no political motivations behind Obama’s decision to join his supporter’s rival.
“This is not a time for politics,” Carney said, the same day Vice President Joe Biden blasted Romney on charges of dishonesty.
As Obama and Christie flew over Point Pleasant Beach, sand and water could be seen covering several blocks of the community. But the president got a reminder of next week’s election from someone who wrote “ROMNEY” in large letters in the sand at the north end of the beach.
Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) stayed behind but noted the importance of Pres. Obama getting to view the devastation of Sandy firsthand.
“The president being here today, I think, reinforces that New Jersey took the direct hit and that we have to make sure we stay on track for the federal aid to come in,” he said.
LoBiondo says he has just one concern: that the federal bureaucracy doesn’t get in the way of getting the aid to work here.
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