WAYNE, N.J. — Walking past piles of water-soaked rubble, President Obama stopped to tell victims of Hurricane Irene that the federal government was on the case and would do what it could to help them rebuild their lives and homes.
One woman blurted out a way he could do just that.
"Give me a million bucks and I'll be happy," joked Patty Mayer, a Fayette Avenue resident.
Obama pantomimed a search of his pockets. "Let me see how much I got. I didn't bring my wallet."
Often seen as emotionally removed from the country's hardships, Obama waded into a pocket of misery Sunday to try to buck up New Jersey neighborhoods stricken by the hurricane. He wore khakis and a checked shirt, sleeves rolled up, and listened to stories about floodwaters that turned streets into streams and basements into swimming pools.
The president led an entourage of federal, state and local officials, all of whom promised not to abandon residents who said they had never seen storm damage on so destructive a scale.
The visit came amid a fierce debate in Washington about the role of the federal government in a time of high deficits.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said recently that he wanted hurricane relief payments to be offset by budget cuts so as not to inflate the deficit.
Without mentioning Cantor by name, Obama dismissed that approach. "I want to make it very clear that we are going to meet our federal obligations -- because we're one country, and when one part of the country gets affected, whether it's a tornado in Joplin, Mo., or a hurricane that affects the Eastern Seaboard, then we come together as one country and we make sure that everybody gets the help that they need," Obama said, standing on the Temple Street Bridge in Paterson, above the Passaic River.
Beside him stood a Republican whom many would like to see challenge the president in 2012: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"And the last thing that the residents here of Paterson or the residents of Vermont or the residents of upstate New York need is Washington politics getting in the way of us making sure that we are doing what we can to help communities that have been badly affected," Obama continued.
He could have visited any number of states that endured major flooding, notably Vermont, but New Jersey may have special appeal to a reelection-minded White House. After winning the state in 2008, Obama has seen his approval rating slip there. A Quinnipiac survey in June showed that 52% of the state disapproved of Obama's performance, the poorest showing he has ever recorded in New Jersey.
It wasn't evident on Sunday. People massed on street corners to wave to the presidential motorcade. They held up signs reading "Help Us" and cheered from large apartment buildings in Paterson as Obama received a private briefing.
In Wayne, Ken and Mary Lewis were waiting outside their home for Obama to pass. Said Ken Lewis: "He cares about us; he's thinking about us. Otherwise he could just turn around and say, 'Forget all about you.' "
Minutes later, Obama greeted the couple and heard them describe the damage. "We're here to help you rebuild," he said.