Back-to-back appearances this week by President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put a fascinating spotlight on two opposite styles of leadership. Christie is the self-styled bull crashing through the china shop. Obama is the deliberative shopper who threads his way through the narrow aisles and tries to keep breakage to a minimum.
In their manner and appearance, the pair could not be more of a contrast. Christie, a former prosecutor, is large and blunt, with "a little Jersey attitude," as Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, put it Wednesday. Obama, a former law instructor, is lean and restrained. He likes being a consensus-builder. Christie likes being a provocateur.
It was no accident that the title of Christie's AEI speech
was "It's Time to Do the Big Things," or that he also declared it "time for some impatience in America." One of the catch phrases of Obama's State of the Union speech, available for a while on an official Democratic Party T-shirt, was "We Do Big Things." And a day before Christie's visit to the capital, Obama had chided the media for badgering him about his new budget, which doesn't address the rapidly rising and potentially ruinous costs of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. "Let's face it, you guys are pretty impatient. If something doesn't happen today, then the assumption is it's just not going to happen," Obama said at a press conference
Christie became a national figure
last year campaigning for fellow Republicans around the country. He has said many times, including on Wednesday, that he won't run for president
in 2012. What he will do, he said, is "lead by example in New Jersey."
What are the "big things," in Christie's view? For both New Jersey and the country, he says, there are three: restoring and maintaining "fiscal sanity," getting pension and health benefits under control, and reforming an education system "that costs too much and produces too little." He made fun of Obama's push to expand high-speed rail and Internet service and the number of electric cars on the road. Those are not big things, he said, they are "the candy of American politics."
Obama's definition of "big things" is more like Dwight Eisenhower's vision of the interstate highway system. It includes spending on infrastructure and research to lay the foundations for future economic growth. Christie, who halted a long sought Hudson River tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey because of its cost, will never be on that page.
The pair do agree on the need to improve education. But in typical fashion, Obama is nudging states and teacher unions toward reforms with federal grants as incentives -- while Christie is in knockdown drag-out mode with the unions. He was halfway through his AEI speech before the audience applauded, and the reaction came when he said unions "often represent the worst" that teachers have to offer.
Obama and Christie are also closer than Christie made it seem on the question of what to do about guaranteed benefits, such as Social Security, that threaten to bankrupt the federal government. Once again, it's a matter of style and timing. Obama is taking time and trying to avoid confrontation, while Christie would have him do it yesterday and let everyone else react.
Dealing with an opposition party that tried to block all of his priorities for two years and is determined to make him a one-term president, that is not the course Obama is taking. Instead, he is having private conversations with congressional leaders in both parties as a prelude to what he predicted will be "big, tough" negotiations.
"I expect that all sides will have to do a little bit of posturing on television and speak to their constituencies, and rally the troops and so forth," Obama said, but ultimately what's needed is a "reasonable, responsible, and initially, probably, somewhat quiet and toned-down conversation" about where compromises are possible.
Now let's look at the Christie approach. Basically it amounts to Get Some Guts. "Here's the truth that nobody's talking about. You're going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security," he said. "I just said it. I'm still standing here. I did not vaporize." Medicare will bankrupt us if we don't reform it, he went on. "Once again, lightning did not come through the window and strike me dead."
In New Jersey, Christie said, this mode has worked for him because people are ready for the truth. He cut "everything" and his approval ratings went up. Firefighters booed him when he proposed cutting their pensions -- but five months later the Democratic legislature countered with its own plan, setting the stage for negotiations.
"I started the conversation and I took the risk and put mine out there first," Christie said. "You just have to have the spine to say 'I'm going to take the risk.' But I think that's what we have elected leaders for. Hence the name. If you're waiting midway back in the pack and call yourself a leader, it seems to me that isn't consistent. So if you want to be a leader, lead."
As Obama has indicated, including as recently as this week, he's taken a lot of flak for his way of doing things. All through his first two years, there were doubts about whether he'd ever sign a health law or a repeal of the military's don't ask, don't tell policy on gay troops. He faced the same questions about his strategies during the primary and general election campaigns of 2008. We know how all that turned out: He won the election, he signed a health law and he signed a repeal of don't ask, don't tell.
The Obama way is still a magnet for complaints. When the president gave his State of the Union address shortly after the Tucson shootings, he was criticized for not calling for gun control measures. That was in addition to the many deficit hawks -– like Christie -– protesting the absence of serious ideas in that speech for long-term fiscal health, such as raising the Social Security age.
The overwhelmingly positive reaction
to his State of the Union speech, unified around the themes of competitiveness and "winning the future," makes it hard to argue with the decision to leave out the contentious issue of gun control. And the White House has signaled there may be proposals coming -- once again Obama on his own timetable for his own reasons.
The same is true of negotiations on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, budget cuts and reforming the tax code. From Obama's perspective, he has two more years in his first term -- enough time to try to work out a grand bargain in the tradition of past bipartisan agreements on Social Security, spending and taxes.
It's a point Christie conceded even as he was expressing regret that Obama did not, in his State of the Union, "stand up and challenge me and say to me and everybody else in country, 'Now is the time to fix the problems and I'm going to lead you there.' " Pause. "He's president. He's got time to fix it. And he's got time to lead, and I hope he does."
It won't look anything like Christie's leadership. But that doesn't mean it won't work. In time.
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