POLITICS

Obama Steps Up Hurricane Sandy Response Before Hitting Campaign Trail

11/03/2012 12:16 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- Before hitting the campaign trail for his final swing before the election, President Barack Obama on Saturday stopped by the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington for a briefing on Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.

"We still have a long way to go to make sure that the people of New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and some of the surrounding areas get their basic needs taken care of and we get back to normalcy," Obama said, adding that the situation continues to be his "number one priority."

The president emphasized five components of recovery: getting power back on as quickly as possible, pumping water out of flooded areas, making sure people's basic needs are taken care of, debris removal and getting transportation systems up and running again.

"Our hearts continue to go out to those families who have been affected, who have actually lost loved ones," Obama said. "That's obviously heartbreaking. But I'm confident that we will continue to make progress as long as state and local and federal officials stay focused."

And then he left, off to a campaign stop in Cleveland.

The pool report noted that the president did not answer questions about growing frustrations among those affected by the storm, particularly on Staten Island, in New York City. But that clearly was the subtext of the FEMA visit Saturday morning.

With just three days remaining before the election, there has been a not-so-subtle push among some supporters of Mitt Romney to turn Hurricane Sandy into a liability for the president, arguing that he's neglected the storm while campaigning.

The White House notes that the president is able to walk and chew gum at the same time. He has called governors in the tri-state area repeatedly during flights on Air Force One. He visited New Jersey himself on Wednesday and instructed the Department of Defense to send fuel to affected areas.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has praised the president's assistance, going so far as to post photos of the two talking via phone, underscoring the closeness of their collaboration. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed the president after the storm hit, praising his response to it and citing the need to support a candidate who will act to combat climate change. And on Saturday morning, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that "in between every single event," the president "basically walks off the stage, gets on a phone call with governors, mayors and first-responders ... Just from being backstage, that’s what he’s doing every single moment. He’s focused on it every minute he’s not on the stage.”

But there is still some fragility to the politics of it all, in large part because the images of the storm's destruction -- flooded streets, destroyed homes, long lines at gas stations -- are so potent. So while the president has remained engaged, even on the campaign trail, advisers believe it's important for him to demonstrate continued involvement.

A White House official said that Obama will continue to receive regular updates from his team about the state of affairs, and will convene a meeting with top advisers and local officials on Sunday morning. In addition, the administration is set to dispatch key figures to hurricane-affected areas.

From the pool report:

Following the meetings, Administration officials will visit storm-damaged communities throughout the affected region, see response efforts first hand, and make sure that necessary resources are getting to state and local partners who are still responding and beginning recovery efforts. Secretary [Shaun] Donovan will visit public housing developments in the Rockaways and tour Breezy Point, New York, to hear from state and local officials and see first-hand the damage and recovery efforts there. Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius will visit with hospital workers, residents impacted by the storm, and local officials in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York. [Small Business Administration] Administrator [Karen] Mills will join Governor [Dan] Malloy and other state and local officials in Norwalk and Bridgeport, Connecticut, to meet with small business owners and other residents affected by the storm. Secretary [Janet] Napolitano will travel to West Virginia and Long Island, New York to see response and recovery efforts underway.

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