This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.
Wednesday night was certainly an interesting one for political observers in New Jersey. The evening began with the Garden State’s new chief executive, Chris Christie, appearing on New Jersey 101.5 to talk about what he would do in his first year. An hour later, President Barack Obama took to the national airwaves to explain what happened in his first year and how the second will be different.
Both addresses acknowledged what is unquestionably the major underlying failure of government today. As President Obama stated in his State of the Union, “We face more than a deficit of dollars. We face a deficit of trust.” However, the two chief executives demonstrated different approaches to regaining the trust necessary to get us back on the right track.
Governor Christie appeared aggressive and direct in his responses to constituent questions. While he may have been short on details, he was crystal-clear on style. Speaking about some minor cost-cutting measures, he advised listeners that these cuts alone would not close the budget gap, but he showed that he understood the importance of such actions when he said, “I believe that symbolism is important. It says we ‘get it.’”
President Obama’s speech also included statements intended to convey that he “gets it.” For example: “We all hated the bank bailout.” And: “Jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” He even tried to recast his health reform proposal as primarily a middle class measure. It was a decent speech, but way too long. (And the length only reinforced the sense that he is not focused on key concerns).
One major difference between the president’s and the governor’s broadcasts was the tone. Middle class voters want to know that their elected leaders truly appreciate the problems they face. Christie demonstrated that, while Obama fell short. When the president came to office, there was a sense that his cool demeanor would be an asset in Washington’s overheated partisan environment. His tone is now perceived as an unwillingness to engage in the heat of battle.
Admittedly, the president showed more passion in this speech than in any other past effort. It just wasn’t enough. Sure, he took to task members of both parties in Congress, the Supreme Court, and certain special interests. But if you watched him carefully, he almost seemed uncomfortable uttering those words.
Talking about the financial reform bill, Obama remarked that “The lobbyists are trying to kill it. Well, we cannot let them win this fight.” While it was an admonishment, you couldn’t exactly call it confrontational. Any claims to moral outrage were further undermined when he said, “I’m not interested in punishing banks.”
Well, guess what. The public feels that somebody needs to be punished – or at least appear to be punished. If things are going downhill, there has to be some enemy who is impeding progress.
Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie has been more than willing to identify an enemy of the public good. It’s public employee unions. As one of his first acts in office, he placed these unions under pay-to-play campaign restrictions. He also realizes that he has to cast the enemy carefully, saying, “No one should believe that the views of the teacher’s union are monolithic among teachers.”
Governor Christie also speaks like a man who is not willing to take guff from the legislature. His executive order to keep casinos open in the event of a government shutdown was seen as a shot across the bow for budget negotiations. He has the power of a line-item veto, and every indication is that he will use it. Some in the legislature may view Christie’s approach as paternalistic and condescending. But since a good chunk of New Jersey thinks their legislature is petty, the approach may be justified in the eyes of the public.
By the same token, the reactions of members of Congress to the State of the Union address was viewed by many as adolescent. In this case, though, Barack Obama is viewed as the parent whose threats are not taken seriously. It’s a perception he must change.
Obama has threatened to veto the financial reform bill if it is watered down by lobbyists. Here is one thing he can do to win back the public’s trust. First, clearly – and shrewdly – delineate what reforms are absolutely essential. Second, execute the veto if any are missing from the final bill.
The problem with Obama’s attempt to use his first State of the Union speech to reboot his presidency is that after a year in office, he is now judged by his actions, not by his promises. Obama may be able to claim some accomplishments, but not on his signature issue. The problem for Obama is that he drew the line in the sand on health care, and then he retreated from that line numerous times.
When you fumble on a defining issue, you lose the benefit of the doubt on other proposals. And you certainly don’t get a do-over. Are you taking notes, Governor Christie?
The wave of middle-class voter discontent that carried Obama to the White House in 2008 has now become a tsunami of frustration. It has resulted in Republican takeovers of the governorships in New Jersey and Virginia and the once-unthinkable U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts. Voters in these states sent a simple message: “You promised that government would become more responsive to the middle class. Not only have you not delivered on that promise, but you haven’t even been trying.”
The public knows that government dysfunction is caused by a failure at all levels, but it’s the guy at the top who must take the blame. A willingness to throw some elbows to ensure that government gets back on course will determine whether both Barack Obama and Chris Christie, as well as the nation and the state, succeed.