ASBURY PARK, NEW JERSEY – Talk about a public display of affection. President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s unlikely “bromance,” sparked last fall amid a natural disaster and a presidential campaign, blossomed into full flush last Tuesday on their very public second date.
Obama was back in the Garden State to check up on the rebuilding effort seven months after he and the Republican governor took a helicopter tour to survey the destruction from Hurricane Sandy, which killed more than 100 and damaged houses and businesses along the Jersey Shore.
This time, the pair took a stroll along the Point Pleasant boardwalk, paused to inspect an unfinished sand sculpture and tried their hand at the Touchdown Fever football toss, where Christie — not usually considered the more athletic of the two — won the president a stuffed bear by throwing the ball through a tire.
“That’s because he’s running for office,” said Obama, who missed all five of his throws. They high-fived after Christie’s successful toss.
Once again amid a politically perilous moment, Obama came calling on Christie, whose embrace of him after the hurricane began a mutually beneficial relationship that violated any number of modern political taboos.
Scorned by many Republicans for boosting Obama’s re-election chances, Christie stood firm at the time, saying he welcomed the president’s support — including billions of dollars in federal aid. The payoff was capped Tuesday when Obama returned to herald the storm survivors as well as the state and federal emergency response.
“You are stronger than the storm,” the president told a crowd of hundreds, who waited for his remarks in a steady drizzle outside the Asbury Park Convention Hall on the city’s boardwalk.
“After all you’ve dealt with, after all you’ve been through, the Jersey Shore is back and it is open for business.”
Christie, who is up for re-election this fall, was as defiant as ever to critics in his party, praising Republicans, Democrats and independents for working together after Sandy hit.
“New Jersey is more important and our citizens’ lives are more important than any kind of politics at all,” he said.
Obama came to the area after weeks of controversy in Washington over the White House’s response to the deadly attacks in Libya, the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s secret seizure of reporters’ phone records in a leak probe.
With Congress on spring recess, the president took the opportunity to try to reset the political conversation and put the spotlight on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose responses to a string of natural disasters have earned bipartisan praise.
Obama’s visit to New Jersey came two days after he met with victims of the powerful tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, where he emphasized the need for robust federal funding to train and equip first responders.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers opposed the $60 billion Sandy aid bill, saying it included long-term infrastructure spending that should have been offset by budget cuts elsewhere. Some Republicans are calling for similar offsets for any federal aid to Oklahoma.
In New Jersey, Obama said that “we’ve provided billions of dollars to families and state and local governments across the region, and more is on the way.” He also suggested that his close working relationship with Christie will continue.
“We’re not done yet,” Obama said of the administration’s involvement in the recovery, “and I want to make sure everybody understands that, because for somebody who hasn’t seen their home rebuilt yet or is still trying to get their business up and running again, after all those losses, we don’t want them to think that somehow we’ve checked a box and we’ve moved on. That’s part of the reason I came back, to let people know we’re going to keep on going until we finish.”
The president quoted New Jersey native and avowed Obama supporter Bruce Springsteen, citing lyrics from the rocker’s rendition of “Jersey Girl”: “I think a friend of mine from here once put it pretty well: ‘Down the Shore, everything’s all right.’ “
It was that kind of day, despite the dreary weather. The sand castle Obama and Christie inspected on the beach in Point Pleasant proved symbolic of the area’s slow rebirth: a half-finished structure whose creators hope will be entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest sand sculpture ever built.