JOPLIN, Mo. — Europe's splendor behind him, Missouri rubble in front of him, President Barack Obama came to Joplin on Sunday to tour the devastation wrought by a monster tornado and console the bereaved.
Air Force One swept over a massive swath of brown as far as the eye could see — a landscape of flattened houses and stripped trees on its approach. Gov. Jay Nixon and others greeted him on the tarmac before they set out for their first stop, a walking tour of a destroyed neighborhood. A memorial service later was punctuating a day of remembrance and toil as authorities pressed on with the tasks of poking through wreckage and identifying the dead.
Obama returned Saturday from a six-day European tour of Ireland, Britain, France and Poland. After days of focusing on the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world, he turned to an even more critical connection: his own, with the American people. He was visiting survivors and the bereaved from the worst tornado in decades, which tore through Joplin a week ago leaving more than 120 dead and hundreds more injured. At least 40 remain unaccounted for, and the damage is massive.
After touring destroyed neighborhoods in the city of 50,000 in southwestern Missouri, he was to speak at the memorial service being held by local clergy and Nixon. He'll offer federal assistance as well as his own condolences.
It's a task Obama has had to assume with increasing frequency of late, after the mass shooting in Arizona in January in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was injured, when tornadoes struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., last month and more recently when flooding from the Mississippi inundated parts of Memphis, Tenn.
Such moments can help define a president, but habitually even-tempered Obama is more apt to offer handshakes and hugs than tears and deep emotion.
Though times of trouble can erase politics and unite people, a phenomenon Obama has commented on, his task as healer Sunday unfolded on unfriendly political ground as his re-election campaign approaches. Obama narrowly lost Missouri to Republican John McCain in 2008, but in Jasper County, where Joplin is located, McCain won by a large margin: 66 percent to 33 percent.
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