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The Obama-Christie Contrast: Doing 'Big Things' Their Own Way

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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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123 Comments

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archergman

Obama is a consensus builder? In what world is that? Maybe in his speeches he sounds that way, but his actions are as divisive as they come.

February 18 2011 at 7:46 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Bonbon

Everyone wants Christie to run, I hope he changes his mind, Obama won't have a chance!

February 18 2011 at 11:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bonbon's comment
Carolyn

There is a reason why Christie is much less popular in his home state than outside of it. We are now looking at much higher property taxes and much reduced services, and we STILL have a budget mess. But we can't raise taxes on the rich or on gasoline! I for one will willingly vote for him if and only if his aggressive approach works. Right now from the tax-payer perspective it looks like he is simply passing the buck down, which is business as usual.

February 22 2011 at 8:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ajschrod

Just imagine how much these two could accomplish AS A TEAM? By combining their talents to solve our problems, with Christie's guts to reduce the budget and Obama's ability to handle interior affairs and public relations, the political parties couldn't blame ANYBODY!

February 17 2011 at 11:15 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ajschrod's comment
Bonbon

Not hardly, Christie wouldn't be seen with Obama!

February 18 2011 at 11:43 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Michael

Brilliant! Obama has been calling for bipartisanship.

February 18 2011 at 11:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mrsshhh

You've mischaracterized Chris Christie. He is a bully. Nothing more and nothing less. He certainly doesn't "lead by example in New Jersey." Especially when he wants to take the NJ education system which ranks usually in the top 5-10 states in ACT and SAT scores and wants to emulate Colorado's school system which ranks in the bottom five. Madness. And he won't talk about that. Let's not pretend he has a style. Bullying is not a style.

February 17 2011 at 10:26 PM Report abuse -10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mrsshhh's comment
boadicea5

As a NJ resident I can tell you we can't wait to get rid of this guy. I guess people thought a change might work but by the time Christy's finished there will be no one left to pay the taxes. We've had tremendous amount of people retire statewide. Union worker who has his time in has retired because they are afraid to lose their pensions or they are afraid he'll privatize. He's the enemy of the working class. Since the rich don't pay taxes and the poor can't, he taking a big risk chopping up the middle class. He looks great now but when he's gone on to better things, NJ will be in the biggest hole especially since no one is paying into the pension fund. Lower income brackets mean lower revenue for the state.

February 18 2011 at 1:10 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
gmydogbud

Chris Christie, said that he would not run for President in 2012; beliving him to be a man of his word, I do not expect that he will make the run! New Jersey needs him to get our state back in some kind of order!

February 17 2011 at 9:46 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
Albert

The author, Jill Lawrence stated here that Obama was a Law Instructor. Where did he teach law? It certainly wasn't at Harvard because he never went to Harvard. There are no records of him ever being a student there and every student who attended Harvard at the times Obama said he was there have said they never had him in any classes. Classes that ALL law students must take for graduation.

February 17 2011 at 9:45 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
jwosr98

Can someone please explain to me how Social Security and Medicare contribute to the defecit when i.t is funded by the money we and our employers pay into it every year, also instead of taking away from the American People why can't we get rid of Foreign Aid to people who hate us and
only tolerate us for the money?

February 17 2011 at 9:41 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to jwosr98's comment
wilrspeer

If you love being bullied you will love Christie.

February 17 2011 at 9:33 PM Report abuse -15 rate up rate down Reply
slick

Gov Christie is at least smart enough to realize when the state is broke you have to make cuts (sorry libs and union people this includes you) unlike the President the Governor cant print money, Take away Obamas tele-prompter and Gov would clean Obamas clock in a debate

February 17 2011 at 9:30 PM Report abuse +21 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to slick's comment
Charlie

Yeah, cut the schools AND cut taxes for MILLIONAIRES ONLY while raising everyone else's taxes. That is EXACTLY what Christie-Bush did.

February 18 2011 at 11:05 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Kathryn

If you really believe Mr. Christie can "clean Obama's clock" why isn't he running? Oh, I forgot, getting the financial affairs of his state in order are more important to him than running for President. For a man who has so much to say about the way President Obama is running the country, I would think he would want to jump right in with solutions. Wouldn't this help his state much more and much faster? Or does Mr. Christie just like to hear himself talk. Kathryn

March 03 2011 at 11:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bill

WHAT IS THERE TO COMPARE, WHO IS MAKING THINGS BETTER IS USEFUL CHANGE HAPPENING IN NEW JERSEY, ARE PROBLEMS BEING SOLVED... AND WHAT IS HAPPENING IN DC AFTER MANY MANY SPEECHS AND LASER FOCUS ON PROBLEMS DEDICATED EFFORT AND SLEEPLESS NIGHTS ETC, ETC THE COMPARISON IS EASY, CHRISTIE IS A DOER OBAMA IS A TALKER..., AND WHAT A TALKER yadayada..

February 17 2011 at 9:24 PM Report abuse +25 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bill's comment
Carolyn

Where do you live? I doubt if you live in NJ. Christie has been slashing and burning to his agenda. No tax raises on the very rich (come on - if you make more than $400,000 a year a small increase is really going to bother you that much? Turn in your Ferrari for Cripes sake!), no increase (even modest) in the gas tax, and oh by the way, the raise in tolls that was voted in 2 years ago to pay for the tunnel that you unilaterally scrapped - well we are going to keep that money to pay for MY agenda. Never mind that the toll was legally voted in by a majority for a specific purpose. If it is so all-fired important, then put it up for a vote again to see if the people want to pay more in tolls to pay for your roads. I beg all of you - don't listen to simply the PR machine on Christie - follow what he does, not what he says.

February 22 2011 at 9:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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