Published: Apr 29, 2011 4:58 PM EDT
Updated: Apr 29, 2011 1:58 PM EDT

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - President Barack Obama got a sobering, close-up look Friday at the nation's most horrific tornado damage in decades, offering comfort to victims and government help to an entire reeling region. The nightmare storms in the South have killed about 300 people, chiefly in Alabama.

Visible from Air Force One as Obama neared a landing in Tuscaloosa: a long swath of tornado damage that looked like a wide, angry scar across the land. And as the president moved by motorcade through communities and business districts, suddenly the devastation was everywhere: flattened buildings, snapped trees, collapsed car washes and heaps of rubble, twisted metal and overturned cars as far as the eye could see.

The president's spokesman, Jay Carney, said Obama wanted to "make clear the administration's commitment to helping in any way that it can, and to put a spotlight for the rest of America on what kind of suffering a storm like this can cause to so many families and businesses."

First lady Michelle Obama was at the president's side as he offered condolences. He has stepped into the role of national consoler in chief before, including after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords earlier this year, but has not had to deal with the scope of such community obliteration until now.

Obama planned to make a statement in Alabama. It was part of a day of contrasts remarkable even for a president, traveling to storm-ravaged Alabama before heading to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to cheer the final launch of space shuttle Endeavour alongside the injured Giffords.

The president, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, arrived under bright, sunny skies. He fell into lengthy conversations with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox before heading off to inspect the damage and spend time with local families and officials.

All told, the day was shaping up as an object lesson in the many roles a president must play, from healer to cheerleader, beginning with a nod to the country's civil rights past and ending with a speech to its future in a class of graduating students. Before departing the White House, he met with participants in the iconic 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike. The president was to end his day with evening commencement address at Miami Dade College in south Florida.

The president has declared a major disaster in Alabama and ordered federal aid to assist with recovery efforts.

In Florida, a pivotal swing state for Obama's re-election hopes, the president was to act as cheerleader-in-chief for NASA's second-to-last space shuttle launch and for Giffords' encouraging if gradual recovery after she was shot in the head in an assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., in January.

Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, is commanding the shuttle flight, and the president will have Mrs. Obama and their two daughters with him, the first time an entire presidential family has traveled to view a launch. But Obama's meeting with Giffords was to take place in private; she has not appeared in public since her injury and was not expected to do so Friday.

Although the shuttle program was ended by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has angered some NASA workers with his own space plans. He canceled Bush's proposed replacement for the shuttle program - a new mission to the moon - putting in its place vaguer plans for sending astronauts to land on an asteroid and ultimately Mars.

Obama wants private companies to pick up the shuttle's role of delivering payloads to the space station, an approach that is costing thousands of government jobs, including 2,000 contractors to be laid off after the final shuttle flight in June.

More than 500 employees lost their jobs earlier this month.

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