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DISASTERS

Obama goes to Jersey, declares shore mostly 'all right,' while challenges await in Washington

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May 28, 2013: President Obama speak outside at Asbury Park Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey.AP

President Obama on Tuesday visited New Jersey to declare the state’s iconic beach towns are back in business, just seven months after being pounded by superstorm Sandy, but also to vow those still suffering will not be forgotten.

“The Jersey Shore is back and it is open for business,” the president said from the Asbury Park boardwalk.

The late-October storm caused $38 billion in damages in the state and wrecked or destroyed 360,000 homes or apartment units. 

“We’re not done yet,” said Obama, one day after the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer tourist season. “And I just want to make sure everybody understands that.”

Beyond reassuring New Jersey residents, the trip provided the president with an opportunity to showcase the widely praised Federal Emergency Management Agency at a time when attention has focused on the Internal Revenue Service and its targeting of conservative groups. The president also gets to draw attention to the kind of bipartisanship that has been harder to find in the nation's capital. 

Just days after the storm made a direct hit on the state and with Election Day about a week away, Obama walked side by side amid the devastation with Republican Gov. Chris Christie. And on Tuesday, they rejoined to look at the progress and at what still needs to be done.

“We still have so much more to do,” Christie said.

The visit occurred as Congress is away for a Memorial Day break, a weeklong recess that likely will ease the daily attention lawmakers, particularly Republicans, had been paying to the IRS political upheaval as well as the ongoing debate about the fatal attacks at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last year and an investigation of media leaks that has stirred opposition from the media and many lawmakers. 

It also came just days after Obama started trying to change the subject in Washington with a speech defending his controversial program of strikes by unmanned drones and renewing his push to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

On Sunday, Obama traveled to Oklahoma to view damage from the recent tornado and to console victims of the deadly storm. 

In New Jersey, the president made his remarks under a steady drizzle amid hundreds of visitors just steps from the surf line.

“Because down the shore everything is all right,” said the president, taking a line from Bruce Springsteen, a native son whose songs have made the string of northern New Jersey beach towns part of Americana.

The president's appearance was yet another way for Christie to showcase his beloved Jersey Shore. He had been touting it throughout the weekend as a destination point that is back in business, and he broke a Guinness world record Friday by cutting a 5.5-mile-long ceremonial ribbon that symbolically tied together some of the towns hardest-hit by Sandy. The state has a $25 million marketing campaign to highlight the shore's resurgence in time for the summer season. 

The reunion should play well for Christie and Obama.

Christie, who is seeking re-election this year, got to stand shoulder to shoulder with a president popular among Democrats in a Democratic-leaning state. And the president, dueling with congressional Republicans on a number of fronts, gets to display common cause with a popular GOP stalwart.

Christie, in an interview with NBC on Friday, played down the politics, even when asked whether ties to Obama could hurt him among conservatives if he were to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. 

"The fact of the matter is, he's the president of the United States, and he wants to come here and see the people of New Jersey," Christie said. "I'm the governor. I'll be here to welcome him." 

To be sure, New Jersey is still rebuilding. Obama is visiting those regions that have been among the first to recover -- Christie ranks the recovery of the state's famous boardwalks as an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, but concedes that in other parts of the state many homeowners are still rebuilding six months after the devastating superstorm struck.

But the coastal recovery is a big potential boon for the state, where tourism is a nearly $40 billion industry. 

For Obama, coming off a week that had the IRS in the crosshairs of a scandal, the trip also offers an opportunity to demonstrate the work of FEMA, whose response to disasters has been met with bipartisan praise. 

Indeed, inside the White House, FEMA is perceived as an example of what's best about government. The agency, panned for its response under President George W. Bush to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has made a turnaround under administrator Craig Fugate and has been commended for its work in disasters from the Joplin, Mo., tornado in 2011 to Sandy last year.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.