Obama embarks on day of high, lows
Washington - President Barack Obama is embarking on a day of contrasts remarkable even for a president, travelling to storm-ravaged Alabama to survey devastating twister damage before heading to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to cheer the final launch of space shuttle Endeavour alongside the injured congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Capping it all off on Friday, the president was delivering an evening commencement address at Miami Dade College. And before even departing the White House, he was to meet with participants in the iconic 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike.
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. At the stops in between, he'll witness both the ravages of an awesome natural disaster and the wonders of manned space travel.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it was to be Obama as comforter-in-chief, meeting with victims of the nightmare storms that have killed more than 300 people, some two-thirds of them in Alabama.
First lady Michelle Obama was to be by his side as the president offered condolences and whatever help the federal government could provide.
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, Arizona, in January.
Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, is commanding the shuttle flight, and the president will have his wife and their two daughters with him, the first time an entire presidential family has travelled 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 on Friday.
Although the shuttle programme was ended by Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, Obama has angered some Nasa workers with his own space plans. He cancelled Bush's proposed replacement for the shuttle programme - 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.