CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Barack Obama consoled victims of Hurricane Isaac along the Gulf Coast on Monday and stoked the enthusiasm of union voters in the industrial heartland, blending a hard political sell with a softer show of sympathy on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
At times like these, “nobody’s a Democrat or a Republican, we’re all just Americans looking out for one another,” the president said after inspecting damage inflicted by the storm and hugging some of its victims. He was flanked by local and state officials of both parties as he spoke. There was nothing nonpartisan about his earlier appearance in Toledo, Ohio. There, the president said Republican challenger Mitt Romney should be penalized for “unnecessary roughness” on the middle class and accused him in a ringing labor Day speech of backing higher taxes for millions after opposing the 2009 auto industry bailout.
Obama’s trip to La Place, La., was a televised interlude in the rough and tumble of the political campaign, four days after Romney accepted his party’s presidential nomination at the GOP Convention in Tampa, Fla., and three days before the president is nominated by Democratic delegates in Charlotte.
Unlike Obama, Romney made no mention of federal aid in his trip to Louisiana, which was designed to demonstrate his own concern for victims of the storm.
First lady Michelle Obama was already in the Democratic convention city as her husband spent his day blending the work of president and candidate.
He doesn’t arrive in North Carolina until later in the week, after concluding a slow circuit of campaign stops in battleground states and the trip to Louisiana.
In the flooded neighborhood, he said he had promised local residents “we’re going to make sure at the federal level, we are getting on the case very quickly about figuring out what exactly happened here, what can we do to make sure that it doesn’t happen again and expediting some of the decisions that may need to be made to ensure that we have the infrastructure in place to protect people’s property and to protect people’s lives.”
The federal government spent more than $10 billion to strengthen the levee system around New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.
Obama noted that last week’s flooding was in a different region, leaving open the question of what the government might do to prevent a recurrence.
A few hundred miles away in Charlotte, the conversion of the Time Warner Cable Arena into a political convention hall was nearly complete.
A few blocks from the hall where Democratic delegates will gather on Tuesday, union members staged a Labor Day march through downtown. Though supporting Obama, they also expressed frustration that he and the Democrats chose to hold their convention in a state that bans collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees.
There was disagreement among the ranks of the marchers. “I understand their frustration … but do they really think they’re going to be better off with Romney?” asked Phil Wheeler, 70, a delegate from Connecticut and a retired member of United Auto Workers Local 376 in Hartford.
Democrats chose the state to underscore their determination to contest it in the fall campaign. Obama carried North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008, but he faces a tough challenge this time given statewide unemployment of 9.6 percent in the most recent tabulation.
Meanwhile in Charlotte, union activists walked a political tightrope on Monday — voicing support for Obama’s re-election bid while lamenting adversarial attitudes toward organized labor in the state Democrats chose for the presidential nominating convention.
More than 300 people marched in the Charlotte Labor Day Parade a day before the kickoff of the Democratic National Convention, carrying signs, wearing matching shirts and chanting. In contrast to a protest the previous day, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly pro-Obama, family-friendly and generally low-key. The police presence was much lighter.
For Gil Crittendon, it was important for the marchers to show that organized labor is alive in North Carolina — even though the state has the lowest percentage of union members in the nation. T he member of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 305 brought his four grandchildren with him for the walk in the hot sun.
“I want them to know what it’s like to stand up for your beliefs,” the Charlotte resident said. “A lot of people — politicians — want to break the unions. It’s important that we stick together and push back.”
The selection of Charlotte for the convention has been a sore point with union leaders. While organized labor gave $8.3 million toward the 2008 convention in Denver that nominated Obama, many unions are refusing to financially support this week’s convention for reasons including North Carolina’s ban on collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers. Fundraising reports for the convention and host committee will not be released until 60 days after the convention.
It has been an uphill battle to organize unions in the South, where many people have negative attitudes toward them. Crittendon believes it has to do with workers’ fears that companies will move if employees unionize. As a counter example, he cited North Carolina’s textiles industry which had few unions but still saw its plants shuttered and jobs moved overseas.
“How do you think the middle class was built? With strong union wages. We fought for better working conditions. We fought for higher wages. Yet, people attack us for that,” he said.
He was walking in one of the many clusters of union members wearing shirts from their locals who were interspersed with marching bands for the parade around the central business district of North Carolina’s largest city.
Many carried pro-Obama signs. Danielle Rozelee was part of a group wearing light blue shirts with Obama’s picture on it. She works at a Freightliner plant in Mount Holly that assembles long-haul trucks.
She credits Obama with saving the jobs for many in her industry because of the auto bailout.
“He saved our jobs. He saved our industry. We’re going to save his job in November,” she said, repeating the slogan on her shirt. “We support him 100 percent.”
Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden addressed union crowds Monday in the Midwest as part of an effort to keep the group of reliably Democratic voters motivated. During a gathering in Ohio, Obama noted his decision to rescue automakers General Motors and Chrysler in 2009, a move that Romney opposed.
At an appearance in Detroit, Biden said: “Ladies and gentlemen, you, organized labor, are one of the reasons why this country is coming back. Folks, let me make something clear and say it to the press: America is better off today than they left us when they left.”
Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg argued that the middle class has been “crushed” by high joblessness, fallen incomes and rising gas prices under Obama.
“Americans aren’t better off than they were four years ago, and they deserve a president who recognizes that,” she said.
In Charlotte, about a dozen members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who have been camping out in a city-owned park, marched in the back of the parade. They held anti-Obama signs. When they reached the end of the parade route in the park where they are staying, one of the Occupy members got into a shouting match with an Obama supporter who ended up walking away.
Phil Wheeler, 70, came to Charlotte from Connecticut to serve as a convention delegate but marched in solidarity with other union members. He wiped the sweat from his forehead a few times. It was hot and humid, but Wheeler said he was going to stay with the march.
“I know people on the left who are criticizing the president. I understand their frustration. You can’t accomplish a lot when people are working against you. But do they really think they’re going to be better off with Romney?” asked the retired member of United Auto Workers Local 376 in Hartford, Conn.
He said the GOP agenda would hurt working class Americans.
“For unions and working people, there’s a big difference between Romney and Obama.”
Mitch Weiss and Michael Biesecker of The Associated Press contributed to this report.