ASBURY PARK, N.J. — President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie promoted the Jersey Shore's summer tourism economy Tuesday while praising the federal government's role in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, reprising their beach-buddy routine in a display of mutual assistance with potential political dividends.
Despite a steady drizzle, the Democratic president and the Republican governor tried their hand at arcade football and the president declared that the state's popular shore was back seven months after the devastating storm bore down on its famed boardwalks and seaside towns.
"You are stronger than the storm," Obama said, borrowing a line that Christie himself uses in a federally funded advertising campaign touting Jersey Shore tourism. "After all you've dealt with, after all you've been through, the Jersey Shore is back and it is open for business."
After the rapport both men established in the wake of the October storm, Tuesday's joint tour from Point Pleasant Beach to Asbury Park held opportunities for both. Obama, eager to put a competent face on the federal government after the troubles facing the Internal Revenue Service, used the visit to praise the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For Christie, it was a chance to showcase the state's cherished beaches and draw attention to a $40 billion industry in the state.
Republicans criticized Christie last year for praising Obama's response to the storm in the days before the presidential election and for allowing himself to be seen prominently with the president. The storm not only took media attention away from Republican challenger Mitt Romney, it allowed Obama to strike an executive posture in the campaign's final days.
This time, the imagery is less powerful but equally convenient. Christie, who flew with Obama aboard his Marine One helicopter, is running for re-election in a Democratic-leaning state, and Obama gets to be seen with a high-visibility Republican at a time that such bipartisanship is rare in Washington. Christie's likely Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, did get to meet Obama before the speech as part of a bipartisan group of about 30 local and state officials invited to get photographs taken with the president.
If conservatives remain wary of Christie's overtures, Christie showed them one way to beat Obama: with a flick of a football. At a boardwalk arcade on Point Pleasant, the Democratic president and the GOP governor took turns tossing footballs at a tire. Obama shot zero for five; Christie went one for one.
"One and done!" Christie declared after making his throw.
"That's `cause he's running for office!" Obama laughed, as he gave Christie a high-five ending with both men clasping hands.
The arcade operator, noting that Obama was from Chicago, chose a stuffed bear with a Chicago Bears logo and handed it to the president. As the men made their way down the boardwalk, the song "Jungleland" by New Jersey's native son and Christie favorite Bruce Springsteen blared from speakers.
Later, under a steady drizzle in Asbury Park before a crowd of almost 4,000, Obama said the job of repairing the $38 billion in damage inflicted by the storm is not over. He said his return visit was intended to show he's still committed to putting the federal government to work. When all is said and done, Obama assured people, the Jersey Shore will be better and more resilient than it was before.
"I could see being a little younger and having some fun on the Jersey Shore," Obama said to laughter. "I can't do that anymore. Maybe after I leave office."
In introducing the president, Christie noted that Obama visited the state two days after the storm hit "to see the damage for himself, to pledge his support and the support of the federal government to help us recover and rebuild.
"Republicans, Democrats, independents – we all came together, because New Jersey is more important and our citizens are more important than any kind of politics at all," Christie said. "So now, seven months later, we know this, that we've made great progress, but that we still have so much more to do."
Obama said his message to residents in storm-ravaged New Jersey also holds true for those in Oklahoma recovering from the May 20 tornado that killed 24 people and devastated the community of Moore.
"When we make a commitment that we got your back, we mean it," Obama said. Gesturing to his host, Obama praised Christie for the "the great work he's done here" in leading the recovery effort.
In Washington on Tuesday, first lady Michelle Obama welcomed students from two New Jersey schools damaged by the storm to the White House garden, where they gathered vegetables and made flatbread pizza alongside students from other states.
"It hasn't been that easy, but you guys have managed to get through the school year way on top of the game, and we're just very proud of you," Mrs. Obama told the students from New Jersey.
The visit to the Jersey Shore gave Obama an opportunity to shift attention, if for the moment, from the IRS political upheaval as well as the ongoing debate about the fatal attacks at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and an investigation of leaks to the media that has stirred opposition from the media and many lawmakers.
With Congress away for a Memorial Day break, Obama had the megaphone mostly to himself.
Associated Press writers Angela Delli Santi in Asbury Park, N.J., and Josh Lederman and Stacy A. Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.