LaPLACE, La. – President Barack Obama insisted on Monday that the federal government can help Americans in crisis, whether they're autoworkers fearful that their company will disappear or Gulf Coast residents picking up the pieces after the devastation of Hurricane Isaac.
In separate appearances in Ohio and Louisiana, the Democratic incumbent delivered a forceful defense of government involvement to counter the oft-repeated Republican argument that business and free enterprise are the main drivers of U.S success. Obama has said the election between himself and Republican Mitt Romney is a clear choice of the competing visions about the role and reach of government.
"What I've pledged to these folks is we're going to make sure at the federal level we are getting on the case very quickly about figuring out what exactly happened here and what can do to make sure it doesn't happen again and expedite some of the decisions that may need to be made," Obama told reporters after touring hard-hit St. John the Baptist Parish, 30 miles outside of New Orleans.
Joined by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and members of Louisiana's congressional delegation, Obama walked through a neighborhood of brick homes and front yards that were a painful reminder of last week's hurricane. Orderly piles of water-logged debris -- bedding, insulation, furniture and toys -- filled the yards.
The president shook hands with residents in La Place, where several neighborhoods were inundated by water and some residents were rescued from rooftops by boats.
"How y'all doing?" he asked.
"Better now," one man shouted back.
In the sticky heat, the president walked from house to house, asking residents about what happened and posing for photos. There was debris but no signs of lingering water.
"We're here to help," the president said at another home.
Obama praised the coordination of federal, state and local officials and pointed out that his administration issued disaster declarations well in advance to ensure officials "weren't behind the eight ball." In highlighting the work, Obama was drawing a contrast with President George W. Bush's widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.
Hours earlier in Ohio, Obama spoke to members of the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers, and noted his decision to rescue automakers General Motors and Chrysler in 2009, a move that Romney opposed.
"If America had thrown in the towel like that, GM and Chrysler wouldn't exist today," Obama said. "The suppliers and the distributors that get their business from these companies would have died off, too. Then even Ford could have gone down as well."
The recoveries of GM and Chrysler have been recurrent themes in Obama's re-election campaign, particularly in states such as Michigan and the battleground of Ohio.
"These jobs are worth more than just a paycheck. They're a source of pride. They're a ticket into middle-class life. These companies are worth more than just the cars that they build. They're a symbol of America's innovation," Obama said. "They're a source of our manufacturing might. If that is not worth fighting for, than what is?"
Prior to his visit to Louisiana, Obama's remarks about the storm have focused on what money and resources the federal government can marshal to help. Romney used his trip Friday to emphasize the need for charitable donations to help people recover.
On the flight from Ohio, White House press secretary Jay Carney said natural disasters are "apolitical," but he jabbed at the Republican presidential ticket and the candidates' stand on the government's role in aiding the victims.
"It is worth noting that last year there was an effort to underfund the money that's used to provide relief to Americans when they've been hit by disasters," Carney said. "That effort was led by congressman Paul Ryan, who is now running to be vice president."
Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck said the chairman of the House Budget Committee "believes providing aid to victims of natural disasters is a critical obligation and should be treated as a high priority within a fiscally responsible budget."
Since the storm hit last week, Democrats have been using the disaster issue to hammer Romney and his running mate, whose budget had proposed eliminating $10 billion a year in disaster spending and requiring Congress to pay for emergencies by cutting from elsewhere in the budget. GOP leaders blocked that proposal, and Romney hasn't said whether he agreed with Ryan's proposed cuts.
Residents of LaPlace spent Monday cleaning their homes, dragging out waterlogged carpets and furniture, using brooms to push out mud and debris and relying on water and bleach to clean what was left.
"It's gross," said Barbara Melton, 60, who has lived in her home for 23 years and never experienced flooding. "It's hot, it stinks, but I'm trying to get all this mud and stuff out of my house."
Melton, broom in hand, smiled when talking about Obama visiting the area.
"Having him here and seeing the situation really helps people be able to cope with what's going on, what's happened here."
Both Romney's team and the president's insist that their visits are not aimed at political gain. But the specter of Hurricane Katrina helps explain why both men sought to tour Isaac's damage. Presidents, and would-be presidents, can't afford to get panned the way Bush did in the days after Katrina crippled New Orleans and the Mississippi and Alabama coasts in 2005, killing more than 1,800.
Throughout his visit, Romney was confronted with reminders that locals were most concerned about extending flood protection -- paid for by the federal government -- far enough to protect their community. In New Orleans, $14 billion in federal aid was set aside to build a complex flood protection system of sea walls and levees after the devastation of Katrina in 2005.