What Obama can learn from Chris Christie

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…

Christie is also a connoisseur of the symbolic gesture. Shortly after taking office last January, for example, he began to nullify the decisions of many of New Jersey’s public authorities and commissions by vetoing the minutes of their meetings. The problem, according to the governor, was that groups like the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners were burning through too much taxpayer cash; a veto, he said, would prevent them from executing new contracts or issuing bonds. In the end, the maneuver didn’t save all that much money. But that was never the point. “The vetoes helped Christie establish a reputation for protecting the state’s fiscal health,” says Brigid Harrison, a politics professor at Montclair State University. “His goal was to earn public trust early on, so voters would give him the benefit of the doubt when he made more controversial changes.” (A similar dynamic was at work in October when Christie, citing potential cost overruns, canceled a long-planned train tunnel between North Jersey and Manhattan.) Obama spent his early days in office administering CPR to the economy, so his options were limited. But he has since acknowledged missed opportunities and admitted that “leadership isn’t just legislation. It’s a matter of persuading people.” A few populist gestures—say, removing earmarks from the stimulus package or restricting Wall Street bonuses—may have provided some insulation as public opinion began to cool…

With Christie, someone always deserves the blame—a conviction his aggrieved constituents seem, for now, to share.