US President Barack Obama absorbed the devastation of Colorado’s wildfires, visiting a neighborhood struck by the flames and taking in the devastation of charred homes.
After declaring a “major disaster” in the state early on Friday and promising federal aid, Obama got a firsthand view of the fires and their toll on residential communities. More than 30,000 people have been evacuated in what is now the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history.
“Whether it’s fires in Colorado or flooding in the northern parts of Florida, when natural disasters like this hit, America comes together,” Obama said after touring a neighborhood where the fire left some homes standing, but leveled surrounding properties.
Obama’s appearance in Colorado took on added significance coming less than five months before the Nov. 6 US presidential election. The state is a crucial battleground in the contest between Obama and Republican Party challenger Mitt Romney, and the US president’s visit illustrated the enormous power of incumbency he enjoys to deliver not only assistance, but to show compassion and command.
He stopped to greet firefighters and other first responders and later stopped at a YMCA shelter, where he was greeted with cheers and told volunteers “you guys are making us proud.”
The trip offered images of the president inspecting charred remains of a neighborhood, but presented few opportunities for emotion-packed moments. Most of his time was spent with firefighters, or walking with officials through evacuated neighborhoods.
Hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the blaze that has encroached on the state’s second-largest city and threatened the US Air Force Academy.
The White House said Obama made the trip to get a firsthand look at the wildfire damage and to assess whether additional federal resources are necessary.
However, election year political concerns also created an imperative for Obama to be on the ground. The presidential contest in Colorado is close, and Obama and Romney are looking to swing the state in their favor anyway they can.
About 46 percent of registered voters backed Obama, 42 percent backed Romney and 8 percent were undecided in an NBC News/Marist poll conducted in late May.
Colorado, with huge swaths of independent-minded voters, holds significant political weight in November. In a tight election, the state’s nine electoral votes could make the difference between a win or a loss in the state-by-state battle for the White House. Obama won Colorado in 2008.
Obama’s campaign and a political action committee supporting him have spent more than US$8 million on television advertisements in the state, according to Republican officials who track ad buys. Romney and outside groups backing his candidacy have spent more than US$4 million.
Every decision the Obama White House makes to send him to a disaster zone is done under the shadow of former US president George W. Bush’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which irrevocably damaged his presidency.
Bush was widely criticized as detached and uncaring when he viewed the flooding of New Orleans from the air rather than meeting with people on the ground. White House officials said at the time that they did not want Bush’s presence to distract from the recovery efforts.