By Kathleen Hennessey And Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau –
NEW ORLEANS — President Barack Obama surveyed flood damage caused by Hurricane Isaac and pledged Monday that the federal government will do all it can to help victims get back on their feet.
Meeting with families and local officials dealing with the disaster, Obama promised action to prevent such flooding in the future.
“What I pledge to these folks is to make sure at the federal level we’re getting on the case very quickly” to figure out “what exactly happened here … and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
The president noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee system had been bolstered in the seven years since Hurricane Katrina and had helped protect New Orleans this time.
An aide to the president said the Louisiana visit was “apolitical,” designed to ensure that the federal government’s disaster response was operating optimally. Among officials who briefed him was Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
But the trip served a political purpose as Obama headed toward Charlotte, N.C., to accept the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination later this week.
News coverage showed him at the site of the disaster, sleeves rolled up — a sharp contrast to images of President George W. Bush viewing Katrina’s devastation from the air in 2005.
Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, visited the flooded area Friday, the day after accepting the nomination.
The Obama campaign designated the New Orleans detour as an “official” visit. It came at the end of a campaign day in which Obama delivered a pro-worker Labor Day message in the battleground state of Ohio.
It was not surprising that Democrats used the holiday to talk up unions, but somewhat unusual for the Republican candidate not to campaign on what was once considered the unofficial start of the general election season.
Coming off a week of events at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., Romney took Monday off. He and his family relaxed at their lakeside vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H., enjoying lunch on the porch. The only public sighting of the Republican nominee came early Monday morning at the marina that maintains his boats.
But Romney’s running mate, Paul D. Ryan, campaigned in Greenville, N.C., where he compared Obama to Jimmy Carter — the last Democratic president to lose a re-election bid. The Carter years “look like the good old days” in comparison with the current state of affairs, Ryan said.
“Every president since the Great Depression who asked Americans to send them into a second term could say that you were better off than you were four years ago,” Ryan said, “except for Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama.”
In Toledo, Obama’s remarks included a protracted sports metaphor, a response to Romney’s recent zinger that he was the coach who would lead the country to a winning season.
“The problem is, everybody has already seen his economic playbook,” Obama said. “We know what’s in it.”
Obama, an ESPN devotee, continued the metaphor with three downs, an audible and a flag on the play. On third down, he said, Romney “calls for a Hail Mary — ending Medicare as we know it by giving seniors a voucher that leaves them to pay any additional cost out of their pocket!”
“I’ve got one piece of advice for you about the Romney/Ryan game plan, Ohio,” Obama said. “Punt it away! It won’t work. It won’t win the game.”
Touting his auto bailout, Obama defended organized labor.
“I don’t understand why these folks have the nerve to talk about you like you’re some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten down,” he said, answering those who called the 2009 rescue a handout to his political constituency. “After all that unions have done to build and protect the middle class, they were standing up there at their convention saying you’re responsible for the problems we face.”
In Louisiana, presidential aides — but not Obama himself — took the opportunity to ask how Republican budget-cutting might affect the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s ability to respond to future events.
“Apparently there’s nothing the president’s team won’t politicize,” said Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck. “It’s sad that the White House would stoop to using this heartbreaking event as an opportunity to distort his record and play politics. A Romney-Ryan administration will always ensure there is disaster funding for those in need.”