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Corzine, Obama speeches study in contrasts

What a difference a week makes.

On Tuesday in Trenton, Gov. Jon S. Corzine started his fourth year in office with a restrained State of the State address, mentioning a number of modest accomplishments and a handful of new proposals to help New Jersey weather the current economic storm.

This Tuesday in Washington, Barack Obama will take the oath of office and, as president, lay out his vision for the country’s future in these troubled times.

Aside from the settings, there are other significant differences in the two speeches.

The hopeful anticipation that will greet Obama is in stark contrast to the weary skepticism New Jersey feels toward its state government. The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll reported in Friday’s Press found that Obama’s handling of his transition period meets with the approval of an incredible 75 percent of Garden State voters. A similar 71 percent say they are optimistic about the policies the new president will pursue. These numbers are basically identical to national poll results.

Corzine, on the other hand, clings to an unenthusiastic 43 percent approve to 40 percent disapprove job rating. However, he has finally climbed out of the net negative territory he found himself in after unveiling his highly unpopular, and ultimately abandoned, toll-hike plan in last year’s State of the State address.

The governor’s speech this year was much more subdued than past efforts. There were no sacred cows, 800-pound gorillas or flying pigs. Not even a dyspeptic squirrel. Recognizing the public mood, the governor walked a fine line between sober and upbeat. The speech was interrupted 31 times by applause, but the reception could be described as polite at best, and not altogether spontaneous. Indeed, by the third time Corzine referred to the economy as “priorities number 1, 2 and 3,” the clapping felt forced.

More importantly, the few new proposals the governor unveiled in his speech, such as pension contribution deferrals for local governments and a stop-gap open space bond measure, were met with silence.

Regrettably for the governor, the current situation did not allow much opportunity for unveiling the type of grand plans that one would expect of an incumbent about to launch a re-election bid. The sluggish economy and loss of jobs — named by half of state voters as the top issue in this year’s gubernatorial race — have hamstrung his ability to propose voter-friendly spending initiatives. The question is whether he will be seen as having helped New Jerseyans weather this storm.

From an election year point-of-view, the interesting parts of the speech are the accomplishments Corzine decided to include. These offer clues to the campaign strategy ahead. He pointed to educational improvements, investments in new school construction and a revised school funding formula among his successes. This is not surprising when you look at the polling numbers. Education is one policy area where the Democratic governor has a clear advantage over any potential Republican challenger, and nearly one in five voters currently name this issue as one of their top concerns.

On the other hand, Corzine also emphasized an area where he does not necessarily hold an advantage over the Republicans, or at least one Republican in particular. That is crime and corruption. Corzine devoted nearly three pages of his 22-page speech highlighting his administration’s crime and safety efforts, along with a call for more ethics reform.

Considering that very few voters — 6 percent to be exact — name corruption as a burning issue in this year’s gubernatorial race, it may seem like an odd issue to highlight. However, it is the only issue where GOP contender Chris Christie, the former U.S. Attorney, would start the race with a decided edge over the incumbent. Assuming Christie is able to win his party’s nomination — by no means a foregone conclusion given the history of Republican primaries in this state — neutralizing this issue will be a significant part of the Corzine campaign’s strategy.

Equally interesting, given the election-year context, is what was absent from Corzine’s State of the State speech. Aside from extending the “Senior Freeze” program and an unspecified promise to enforce a 4 percent cap on local property tax increases, the governor did not address broad-based property tax reform. The issue was a key element of his 2005 election campaign, but it now appears to be off his radar screen.

It is not out of the public’s mind, though. Nearly four in 10 Garden State voters say property taxes is the most important policy area they want the gubernatorial candidates to talk about. The property tax issue basically matches the economy as the top concern voters have this year.

So, Corzine has unofficially kicked off his re-election campaign with decidedly less than a bang. He must steer the state through an economic crisis at a time when many voters are skeptical of his ability to do so.

In two days, newly sworn President Barack Obama will face a distressed, but hopeful, nation. While the tone of his inaugural speech almost certainly will be sober, I expect the applause on the National Mall will be a bit more enthusiastic than what was heard last week in the New Jersey Statehouse.

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Asbury Park Press (1/18/09)