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In recent months Barack Obama has visited victims of the Oklahoma tornado, the Boston bombing and the Newtown school shooting, but his visit on Tuesday to beach communities hit by hurricane Sandy is about more than just consoling another group of families hit by America’s run of tragedies.
The president arrives at a crucial moment in the economic recovery of the New Jersey shore, which welcomed 60 million visitors last summer but starts this season worried about how many will come back. It also comes at a potentially opportune moment for Obama and his host, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, both of whom are seeking to gain from some positive coverage of the visit.
Christie has been busy re-opening beach resorts damaged by Sandy in time for the traditional Memorial Day start to the tourist season. But both he and the White House concede there is still work to be done before this storm-ravaged coast is fully back to normal.
“The recovery effort in the aftermath of Sandy is still ongoing and there are still a lot of people in these communities who are hurting and are still struggling to come back from the blow that that storm dealt to them,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest aboard Air Force One during the president’s early trip to Oklahoma on Sunday.
“But the president made a promise, in the aftermath of that storm, that he would continue to focus on that recovery effort and that the federal government would continue to focus on that recovery effort long after the nation’s attention, or at least the media’s attention, had turned elsewhere. ”
Christie broke a Guinness world record on Friday by cutting a 5.5-mile ceremonial ribbon that symbolically tied together some of the hardest-hit towns and the state has a $25m marketing campaign to highlight the shore’s resurgence in time for the summer season.
But some beaches will not be open until mid-June and there are anecdotal reports this weekend of resorts further down the coast in Delaware, or as far north as the Hamptons, seeing a surge of visitors displaced by Sandy. Christie ranks the recovery of the state’s famous boardwalks as an eight on a scale of 10 but concedes that in other parts of the state many homeowners are still rebuilding six months after the devastating superstorm struck. Overall, the storm caused $38bn in damages in the state, and harmed or wrecked 360,000 homes or apartment units.
Obama is visiting those regions that have been among the first to recover and for the sake of the state’s $40bn tourism industry, it is important he strikes an upbeat tone when he joins Christie on Tuesday to visit families and business owners.
It also gives the president a chance to move on from the recent controversies that have dogged the White House. With Christie at Obama’s side, effective government, bipartisanship and economic opportunity will be the unmistakable message in the face of the coastal recovery.
For Obama, the tour helps him continue redirecting the political conversation after two weeks of dealing with the fallout over the administration’s response to terror attacks last September in Benghazi, Libya, the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department’s review of journalist phone records as part of a leak investigation.
The visit occurs as Congress is away for a Memorial Day holiday break, a week-long recess that likely will silence the daily attention lawmakers, particularly Republicans, had been paying to the three political upheavals.
It also comes just days after Obama started seeking to change the subject in Washington with a speech defending his controversial program of strikes by unmanned drones and renewing his push to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility.
For Republican governor Christie, the president’s appearance is yet another way to showcase his beloved Jersey Shore and reprise the remarkable bipartisan tableau they offered during Sandy’s immediate aftermath when Obama flew to New Jersey just days before the election to witness the storm’s wreckage.
Politically, the visit could play well for both men. Christie, seeking re-election this year, will stand shoulder to shoulder with a president popular among Democrats in a Democratic-leaning state. And Obama, dueling with congressional Republicans on a number of fronts, gets to display common cause with a popular GOP stalwart.
Christie, in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer on Friday, downplayed the politics, even when asked if ties to Obama could hurt him among conservatives if he were to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
“The fact of the matter is, he’s the president of the United States, and he wants to come here and see the people of New Jersey,” Christie said. “I’m the governor. I’ll be here to welcome him.”