If there’s one thing that Americans like, it’s a politician that doesn’t act like a politician. Chris Christie checks a lot of the boxes: he is known for a bombastic manner of speaking that breaks the restraints of most elected officials, he is an ardent Bruce Springsteen fan, and with his size, he certainly looks more like the average American than most other political figures. His supporters like that he can cut through the fluff and get things done.
It perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising, then, when he heaped praise on Obama for handling the Sandy aftermath so well earlier this week — and bewildered the entire Romney camp as he did so. Chris Christie came out the real winner, as he looked like what a leader should look like: someone who recognizes when something much larger than partisan loyalties are at stake and throws them aside when need be. But, importantly, he made Obama look like that, too.
After the national conventions in August, it became clear the candidates agreed on one fact: the more convincing portrayal of bipartisanship would win the 2012 election. Bill Clinton pleaded with us to look at Obama’s record: his appointment of Republican secretaries of defense, the Army and transportation, and of course, the appointment of Biden and Hillary Clinton who challenged Obama in the 2008 primaries. Democrats see Obama’s failure to work across the aisle on health care and debt reduction as a result of the obstructionist Republicans. When Mitch McConnell said the single most important thing for Congress to achieve was to make Obama a one-term president, it should have been clear some energy was misguided towards the “politics of constant conflict.”
Republicans, of course, see it differently. The GOP sees a man who is committed more to “distributing income than creating it,” as Bloomberg said. That is, they see a man who is too dedicated to his own philosophical agenda that he fails to grasp the seriousness of the issues we face now. He established universal health care, solving one of the most appalling American scandals, but he did it without thought to the unsustainability of such spending. He ignored the Bowles-Simpson commission. And he at least makes a constant effort to look as cold-shouldered to businesses and financial institutions as a president can (if Clinton’s presidency was any indicator, though it is an act that cannot be sustained for longer than one term).
This blind and unapologetic strain of partisanship has been one of Obama’s most haunting legacies this campaign season. The electorate knows, more than any candidate, how high the stakes are in this election. They or their children are the ones struggling from the unemployment crisis. They are the ones who know the devastating effect our debt will have on subsequent generations if we cannot deal with our unrealistic spending addiction or fondness for tax cuts. They want someone who has the wherewithal to throw party allegiances to the wind and make tough choices. Chris Christie, perhaps because he has not yet been sullied by the crushing partisanship of politics in Washington, is a leader who still exemplifies that kind of nerve. And when he expressed nothing but pride and appreciation for the job Obama was doing, he conferred those qualities on him.
Of course, for Obama’s base, this was nothing surprising. Obama is known for painting himself as the last reasonable man in Washington, and with the Republican temper tantrums thrown over the last two years in Congress, it was an easy play. But for people who were unsure where the locus of blame rested — whether it was the Republicans who would exhaust whatever means possible to defeat a success for Obama, or it was the leader whose most important job it is to break through gridlocks like this — the praise from Chris Christie, and then Michael Bloomberg, should have an important impact.
As the days until the election wane, I worry about how crestfallen 2012 will feel if Romney wins. The 44th President was elected at a time when Americans were so disillusioned with their government — the reckless spending, the unwanted wars — they felt compelled to elect a man whose very name and appearance defied Washington customs. He was a gifted speaker, a young man with the tenacity to go toe-to-toe with veteran pols like Biden and Hillary Clinton, and he promised a new era in American politics. It was naïve to believe, perhaps, as his critics are all too quick to point out now.
My biggest worry about a Romney victory is that it would reduce the legacy that Obama sought to leave to a disingenuous campaign promise in a matter of months. He would be remembered as a man who temporarily derailed our recovery with his deluded socialist agenda, rather than the man who worked to solve our health care crisis and brought us back from the brink of collapse without throwing the poor and working classes under the bus. But Hurricane Sandy, for all of the damage she incurred, revealed the man we elected in 2008: a man who could rise above partisan squabbling and put the American people first.
It is something we can still see in Governor Christie, largely because he has not (yet) been confronted with all of the obstinate loyalties and difficult realities of the White House. His praise for Obama is further proof that people with their interests in the right place can still work together in American politics. If Obama has to go, I would be glad to at least see him leave reminding Americans he worked hardest to go beyond politics and put them first — and with praise endorsements from Christie and Bloomberg to back it up. This desire to cut through politics and do the right thing — it’s what Americans want in a leader. It’s what elected Barack Obama in 2008, and it may well be what makes Chris Christie unstoppable in 2016.