- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2011

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Europe’s splendor behind him, Missouri rubble in front of him, President Obama came to Joplin on Sunday to tour the devastation wrought by a monster tornado and to console the bereaved.

On its approach, 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. 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 to punctuate a day of remembrance and toil as authorities pressed on with the tasks of poking through wreckage and identifying the dead.

Mr. 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 139 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 Mr. Nixon. He’ll offer federal assistance as well as his own condolences.

It’s a task Mr. 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 River inundated parts of Memphis, Tenn.

Such moments can help define a president, but the habitually even-tempered Mr. 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 Mr. Obama has commented on, his task as healer Sunday unfolded on unfriendly political ground as his re-election campaign approaches. Mr. Obama narrowly lost Missouri to Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008, but in Jasper County, where Joplin is located, Mr. McCain won by a large margin: 66 percent to 33 percent.

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