LaPLACE, La. (AP) — President Barack Obama’s trip to the hurricane zone three days after rival Mitt Romney looked over flooded homes and businesses underscores the differences in the way the presidential candidates see the role of government.
So far, the president’s remarks about the storm have focused on what money and resources the federal government can marshal to help. Romney, the Republican challenger, used his trip Friday to emphasize the need for charitable donations to help people recover.
Obama was visiting Louisiana late Monday to hear about the damage from local officials, view the recovery efforts and make a statement likely to highlight the government’s role in the crisis. Obama was slated to walk through hard-hit St. John the Baptist Parish, 30 miles outside of New Orleans. It’s a small, heavily Catholic area of about 45,000 residents. The largest city is LaPlace, where several neighborhoods were inundated by water and some residents were rescued from rooftops by boats.
Greeting the president at the airport in New Orleans were Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal; members of the state’s congressional delegation, including Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, and Landrieu’s brother, Mitch, the city’s mayor.
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 their 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 Wisconsin congressman “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.”
Aside from drawing a distinction with Romney on the role of government, Obama also will signal the advantages he has over his opponent as a sitting president. The White House publicized how much Obama has done to oversee the storm response — he called governors and mayors, received briefings by weather and security advisers, and declared states of emergency before the storm hit.
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 President George W. Bush did in the days after Katrina crippled New Orleans and the Mississippi and Alabama coasts in 2005, killing more than 1,800.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden last week characterized Romney’s visit as intended to focus people on “the needs of the affected region, particularly the need for charitable donations and resources to aid relief efforts.”
As Romney’s visit to Louisiana was wrapping up on Friday, Obama was in Texas talking to U.S. troops about the disaster, telling them that as president he had “directed the federal government to keep doing everything that it can to help our partners at the state and local level. As a country, we stand united with our fellow Americans in their hour of need.”
It was more than Romney said publicly that day about the hurricane, even though he spent more than three hours driving down the flooded Jean Lafitte Boulevard, a main road, his motorcade inching past flooded gas stations, houses and front lawns.
“I’m here to learn and obviously to draw some attention to what’s going on here,” Romney told Jindal, whom he accompanied to the Jean Lafitte town hall to meet with emergency workers and local officials. “So that people around the country know that people down here need help.”
That snippet of conversation represented the bulk of Romney’s remarks in Louisiana on Friday.
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.
Hunt reported from Wolfeboro, N.H. Associated Press writers Stacey Plaisance in LaPlace, La., Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., Ken Thomas in Charlotte, N.C., and Brian Schwaner in New Orleans contributed to this report.