Has Chris Christie swung the election for Obama?

By Nicholas Wapshott
October 31, 2012

The 2012 election’s October Surprise arrived when Hurricane Sandy made landfall and brought the campaign to a halt. The real surprise, however, is how the narrative was so radically altered by the tropical storm’s progress through New Jersey and how Governor Chris Christie so quickly changed his mind about the president. Until the heavens opened, no Mitt Romney surrogate was more scathing and personally disrespectful toward the president than Christie, whose down-to-earth appeal to blue collar voters was considered so important by GOP strategists he was awarded the keynote address at the convention that crowned Romney the party’s candidate.

In a withering assault in Tampa, Christie called for clear, decisive leadership. “Leadership delivers. Leadership counts. Leadership matters,” he said. “It’s time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House.” Christie was back on the attack in Richmond, Virginia, last week, making fun of Obama’s failure to lead. Addressing the president’s complaint that Washington politics-as-usual had hampered his ability to govern, Christie taunted him, saying, “You’ve been living inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the last four years. If you don’t think you can change Washington from inside the White House, let’s give you the plane ticket back to Chicago you’ve earned.”

Few other Romney surrogates, and certainly not the mechanical Romney himself, could batter the president with such effect. Christie went on to describe Obama as “like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can’t find it” and “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue.” Then on Monday came Sandy’s 90 miles-an-hour gusts hosing millions of gallons of salt water on the sentimental Christie’s beloved Jersey Shore, the place where the governor grew up and went to high school.

Thanks to Sandy, Christie the governor engaged with Obama the chief executive and the election turned on a dime. Everywhere you looked on TV Tuesday morning, Christie was extolling the president’s leadership skills. On CBS’s “Good Morning” he said the president’s response had been “excellent” and he “can’t thank the president enough” for coming to Jersey’s aid. That afternoon, Christie told the press, “We appreciate the president’s efforts,” adding, “I appreciate that type of leadership.” Christie let slip he had spoken to Obama a number of times on the president’s private line. He plainly liked what he heard. Christie Tweeted, “I want to thank the president personally for all his assistance.”

Most devastating to the Romney campaign, impotently standing by as Obama took charge of events, Christie appeared on the Fox News breakfast show with its audience of 1.5 million overwhelmingly Republican-voters. Asked whether Romney would be visiting Jersey to see the devastation for himself, Christie snapped, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I have got a job to do here in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics. And I could care less about any of that stuff.” You could almost hear the Romney camp spew out their cups of morning Joe.

On CNN that night Christie explained why he had changed his tune about Obama’s ability to lead. “When the president does things that deserve praise, I will give him praise,” he told Piers Morgan. “And when the president does things that deserve scorn, I’ll give him scorn.” On Wednesday, Christie welcomed Obama to the Jersey Shore and their personal rapport and body language betrayed two men who understand each other and, importantly, respect and like each other.

Inspired no doubt by George W. Bush’s inept handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and his aloof fly-by visit to the scene of mayhem thousands of feet below, Obama has been seen managing the Sandy havoc with his sleeves rolled up. Highlighting the plight of Newark, New Jersey, where up to 90 per cent of households were without power, he said, “My message to the federal government: No bureaucracy, no red tape. Get resources where they’re needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration, because the recovery process obviously in a place like New Jersey is going to take a significant amount of time.”

He urged federal officials to think big, recruiting “military assets” and demanding “private utilities” to act quickly to speed the clean-up. The subliminal message was clear: if members of Congress would only cooperate, he would happily slash government regulations to help the economy recover.

So what’s Christie’s game? From all that is known of him, he is a seat-of-the-pants guy who sees things as he finds them. He is not a sophisticated pol scheming and plotting, looking for every chance to slyly move his piece up the board. His assaults upon Obama were inspired by tribal loyalty; his response to Obama’s helping hand was genuine and human. But Christie is a politician nonetheless.

In the summer he was approached to become Romney’s vice presidential candidate. The Romney camp dearly wanted to compensate for their wooden candidate’s awkward personality by strapping on Christie’s flesh-and-blood approach to voters. Christie was not prepared to take the gamble. It would have meant giving up the Jersey governorship, a job he appears born to do. In brief, Christie said no because he thought Romney would lose.

Yet there is always 2016. If Romney wins, Christie will have to bide his time. But if Obama wins, the GOP will go through an anguished post-mortem where conservative/libertarians will argue Romney was nowhere near conservative enough and the few remaining GOP moderates will claim that Tea Party extremism sank their chances. Christie is a natural retail politician. His only drawback for many in his party is that he has his feet planted too firmly on the ground. When as governor he appointed a Muslim judge, he came in for abuse from conservatives who said he was ushering sharia into America. Christie’s response was typically robust. “I’m tired of dealing with the crazies,” he said. If the GOP wants someone who could give Hillary Clinton (or Joe Biden or Andrew Cuomo) a run for their money next time round, they could do worse than pick Christie.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics has just been published in paperback by W. W. Norton. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is greeted by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after he arrives at Atlantic City International Airport in New Jersey before surveying Hurricane Sandy damage, October 31, 2012.  

19 comments

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That still leaves Manhattan for Romney. Maybe he can show up with a mega-phone and vow to invade New Zealand over this. Or explain how private equity can fix it better than the government.

Poor Romney. He was SO close. But then a hurricane landed on 60 million people one morning and…. reality came back.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

At this point, Christie is the only Republican, that could persuade me (an Independent turned Democrat) to vote the GOP ticket. Most of the others are just too extreme or like Romney – not trust-worthy. But the GOP party will never nominate him because they can’t manipulate him like they are doing Romney.

Posted by weneedchange | Report as abusive

After all is said and done, Christie is a pragmatist. His state is on its back and he needs outside help to get it back on its feet. And, lo and behold, only the Federal government can provide it. There’s not a private equity company or hedge fund large enough to solve his problems. As he said on Fox News the other day after they tried to weasel an invitation for Romney to make a photo-op visit to NJ, he’s not interested in Presidential politics at the moment. And it’s my understanding that Obama contacted him after Sandy struck, not the other way around. Christie did not have to go hat in hat or grovel for assistance from a Democratic President. That must surely mean something to a man as proud as Christie. I am an Obama supporter, and I’ve always felt that he was not a small or petty man, and this confirms my positive opinion of him.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

What a typical republican hypocrite – now that you need help the President is suddenly you best friend and a great leader.

Posted by TimoB | Report as abusive

A question really asking we as voters forget the disagreements over policy and core beliefs once a bit of real life happens.

I hope we are not that shallow. Whether voting for Romney or Obama, I’d like to think we think a bit more critically …

Posted by tomwinans | Report as abusive

Very well written article. It’s good to know that within the extremism of Republicans there are some people like Christie who can be human and caring and sensible. I admire Christie and wish him well. Sadly I can’t say the same of Romney the profiteer/FEMA abolisher!

Posted by Caspary | Report as abusive

Lets hope not. Was their an endorsement made?

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

There are two kinds of leadership:
one that leads the country into two bloody wars on false premises, and another one that makes friends out of foes.

YOU will decide which one you prefer for yourself, your kids and your country.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

The important romney lie is when he says he will cut federal spending. His advisers know that removing that money from the economy will lead to recession. His way to make up for it will be to increase defense (that gov’t job creation) and homeland security spending which are more palatable to the base. This will be at the expense of useful spending on medical research (NIH), the environment and education. This is the worst kind of politics….pretending that we need more defense spending in order to maintain the economy while decrying trickle down government.

Posted by brational | Report as abusive

Chrstie did not lose this for Romney. Romney lost this all on his own when he did the fake food drive in Ohio. 60 million people hit by a hurricane and he’s doing some hoakie, staged swing-state rally the next day. That event hi-lighted the the general dismissiveness and impotence of Mitt Romney.

http://www.politicolnews.com/romney-fake -5000-wall-mart-food-for-sandy-relief/

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I guess the voters who deny global warming, evolution, economics and basic math will believe anything, including that the governor of an already deeply blue state swung the national election because he thanked the federal government for assistance in disaster relief, and showed respect, finally, to the Commander in Chief. People who think for a living will put this theory in the category of Romney’s surge was as factual as Romney’s tax cuts and budget plans, and statements on where Jeeps will be built. He is a fake pandering old fool and his repeated lies and position shifts are the reasons he is losing, but glad Christie gave you pundits another week of blathering about stuff you just make up.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

“So what’s Christie’s game?”

Three words: Obama’s retail politics.

It sounds like Christie never heard anything from Romney, while Obama parachuted into New Jersey with all of the Federal largesse he could offer. That left Christie with no reason to like Romney and no reason to hate Obama. It’s difficult to image Romney carrying New Jersey at this point, but it wasn’t smart for Romney to make that part of it so obvious to Christie.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

First Powell, then Christie, now Bloomberg — prominent Republican politicians are lining up to endorse Obama. That can’t be good for Mitt.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

You got to love Christie. He is a rumbustious fellow who sometimes really irritates me when he is so rude to anyone who dares to criticize him. But he is fun to watch and frankly, i would rather get insulted by Christie than get a handshake from Romney; the last is only a meaningless encounter in the middle of the night, the first is a memory that you can share over a drink with friends and have a good laugh.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

This was a no brainer. New Jersey was devastated. Christie needs all the Federal aid he can get and N.J. will still have to spend well and beyond that for the restoration. This raises Christies cred nationally to voters of both parties. Romney will probably loses and Christies expects to have to work with the Obama aadministration for the next four years.
And, Christie wants to run in 2016. He can’t run as a Republican if Romney wins so that pushes him out to 2020. An Obama win lets Christie start his campaign for 2016 as soon as this election is over.

Posted by mikemm | Report as abusive

@weneedchange– Well said. Same here.

Posted by Freedom4A | Report as abusive

Just come together as Americans and help the people who need it, I really don’t care about “Democrat” or “Republican” politics at this point after hurricane Sandy.
Romney is out of this discussion, he is nothing but someone running for office, and he cannot help anyone unless you think trashing President Obama is helping people who need help.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

Christie answers to the voters of NJ. He is smart enough to know not to give even a hint of dragging thousands of his troubled voters and their pain into the hot Presidential race. He played it smart both politically and for the welfare of his hurting citizens. Well done.

Posted by onemind | Report as abusive

Christie gets it! The rest of the old Archie Bunker types in the GOP don’t get it. Christie is the answer for the New GOP. He understand how to reach out to the moderate Obama supporters that the rest of the GOP has completely turned off with their Guns and God party.

Christie in 2016!

Posted by PhillyJimi | Report as abusive