WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is looking to get his groove back — at the beach.
A post-Hurricane Sandy tour of the New Jersey coastline Tuesday, gives the president a chance for a three-point play that can move him ahead of the recent controversies that have dogged the White House. With New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris 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 weeklong 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 Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility.
On Sunday Obama traveled to Oklahoma to view damage from the recent tornado and console victims of the deadly storm.
For Christie, the president’s appearance is yet another way to showcase his beloved Jersey Shore. The Republican has been touting it throughout the Memorial Day weekend as a destination point that is back in business and he broke a Guinness World record Friday by cutting a 5.5 mile ceremonial ribbon that symbolically tied together some of the hardest-hit towns by Sandy. The state has a $25 million marketing campaign to highlight the shore’s resurgence in time for the summer season.
Both men will 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 plays 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. (Obama has not scheduled any face time with state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie’s likely Democratic opponent in the governor’s race).
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.”
To be sure, New Jersey is still rebuilding. Obama is visiting those regions that have been among the first to recover — 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 $38 billion in damages in the state, and harmed or wrecked 360,000 homes or apartment units.
But the coastal recovery is a big potential boon for the state where tourism is a nearly $40 billion industry.
For Obama, coming off a week that had the IRS in the crosshairs of a scandal, the trip also offers an opportunity to demonstrate the work of another part of government that provides a foil for the IRS: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose response to disasters has been met with bipartisan praise.
Indeed, inside the White House, FEMA is perceived as an example of what’s best about government. The agency, panned for its response under President Bush to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has made a turnaround under administrator Craig Fugate and has been commended for its work in disasters from the Joplin, Mo., tornado in 2011 to Hurricane Sandy last year.
Obama’s trip Tuesday also comes two days after he toured the tornado devastation outside Oklahoma City, Okla., where FEMA has been the face of the federal government as well.
Josh Earnest, the White House’s deputy press secretary, says FEMA represents “competent, efficient government that meets the needs of the people.”
“The renaissance of the agency embodies what the president ran on,” he said.
Overall, the federal government has directed more than $14 billion so far in aid to help families, support state and local rebuilding efforts, and assist major transportation reconstruction and in community development grants to states affected by Katrina, the bulk of which has gone to New Jersey and New York.
Even as Obama meets businesses and homeowners who have benefited from recovery work, the White House says he also plans to talk about the importance of renewing economic opportunities for middle-class families still getting their lives back. It’s a message that dovetails with Obama’s attempts to keep the economy prominent by highlighting economic growth after the Great Recession while also making his case for additional initiatives to keep the economy from stumbling again.