The Professor and the Prosecutor
Romano, Andrew, Newsweek
Byline: Andrew Romano
Gov. Chris Christie has mastered the politics of austerity. Can Obama learn from his success?
You wouldn't know it from looking at them, or hearing them talk, or hearing people talk about them, but Barack Obama and Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, have a lot in common. Both were elected in the midst of the Great Recession. Both inherited a post-apocalyptic mess from a predecessor of the opposing party. Both sold themselves to voters as truth-telling change agents. And both plan to spend 2011 tackling the same thorny issues: education reform, public-pension stabilization, and long-term debt reduction. During the 2009 campaign, one Christie commercial even showed his supporters cheering and waving signs as a stirring Obama speech played on the soundtrack.
Yet with economic growth in a near stall, unemployment approaching 10 percent, and experts warning of a double-dip recession, Obama is struggling to recover from the worst midterm rout in 65 years--while Christie, 48, is more popular than ever. A November Quinnipiac poll shows that 51 percent of New Jerseyites approve of the governor's performance, compared with only 38 percent who don't--a spread that has grown 12 points since June. Videos of Christie dressing down critics have captivated the conservative blogosphere. Glenn Beck has compared him to "common-sense porn." And Rush Limbaugh recently pondered whether it was "wrong to love another man, because I love Chris Christie." Even the mainstream media have begun to fall for the hefty governor. Last week he scored an East Coast-elite hat trick: a big story in New York magazine, a guest spot on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and (full disclosure) a NEWSWEEK correspondent at his town-hall event in Hackettstown, N.J., to report a profile. In contrast, the president's disapproval rating (49 percent) now exceeds his approval (45 percent).
There are many reasons Christie is outpacing Obama. In the Garden State, a governor can pass his agenda without a Senate supermajority, and he doesn't have to endure the same radioactive levels of scrutiny and vitriol as the commander in chief. But Christie's success isn't solely circumstantial. As his time in Trenton has proved, and as last week's event in Hackettstown confirmed, it's also the product of his distinctive approach to governing.
The easiest way to understand why Christie has flourished and why Obama has faltered is to look at the jobs they held before entering politics. From January 2002 to December 2008, Christie served as New Jersey's top federal prosecutor; earlier, Obama spent 12 years as a constitutional-law professor at the University of Chicago. Today, Christie leads like the prosecutor he once was, identifying the crime, fingering the culprit, and methodically building a case designed to convince a jury of his peers. "Christie is who he is," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "If you spend years exercising your biceps, those are muscles you're going to have." Obama, meanwhile, leads like a professor, examining all angles of an issue and seeking evolutionary change by consensus. There are strengths and weaknesses in both approaches. But in an age of anger and austerity, Obama may have more to learn from Christie than the other way around.
The first lesson of Christie's success: keep it simple. Within minutes of lumbering into Hackettstown's American Legion Blue Ridge Post 164, Christie has managed to sum up his agenda in less than 140 characters. "We're spending too much, borrowing too much, and taxing too much," he says. "We need to spend less, borrow less, and tax less." The capacity crowd applauds. It's an easy message to grasp. After all, who's to say Trenton shouldn't respond to the fiscal crisis the same way families do?
Of course, the policy reality is more complex; most economists agree, for example, that government should spend more during a recession, not less. …