Gov. Chris Christie often trains the full fury of his snark on President Obama, but Hurricane Sandy has turned the two men into temporary bipartisan buddies. They made quite the unlikely pair on Wednesday afternoon, boarding Marine One as fellow chief executives for a survey of the devastated New Jersey coast.
Christie and three other potential White House aspirants — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — are being put to the leadership test this week by the hurricane known as Frankenstorm. The disaster tour with the president capped a week in which the storm thrust Christie into the brightest limelight. In typically Christie fashion, he did not mute his personality in the face of a crisis.
He was frank. “If you do not have power, please do not choose today as the time you decide to tap in to your creative juices and jury-rig a power source,” he said as the storm bore down on his state. “If it looks stupid, it is stupid and you’re going to wind up hurting yourselves and others.”
He was stern. “For those elected officials who decided to ignore my admonition, this is now your responsibility,” he said in a rebuke to the mayor of Atlantic City, who advised residents to stay in the city against Christie’s orders.
He was emotional. “The Jersey Shore of my youth is gone,” he tweeted. “ ... We will rebuild.... Sorrow should not replace resilience.”
Above all, he did not stick to a script. Making the rounds on television, Christie repeatedly praised Obama for his leadership through the storm — a sharp departure from his months of service as an oft-deployed surrogate for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Although the temptation is to see Christie’s performance this week as part of an elaborate audition for 2016, the governor bristled at the suggestion. “I have a job to do,” he said Tuesday on Fox and Friends. “I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power, I’ve got devastation on the shore, I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”
Ben Dworkin, a New Jersey politics expert at Rider University, said the destruction along the state’s coast is enough to sober any politician and make any campaign operative forget about his or her day job—at least for now. “Chris Christie is an extremely strategic politician, but that doesn’t mean everything is strategic and every comment is political,” Dworkin said. “I think he was being straight about the Obama administration, and I don’t think it was calculated.”
Christie took flak in 2010 when he was in DisneyWorld during a blizzard. His deportment this week — highly engaged and working well with a Democratic president — is winning quite different reviews and is likely to help him if he decides to run for higher office.
As they dealt with the messy and expensive consequences of Sandy, Christie’s potential 2016 rivals had the same goal in mind: proving their competence or, at the least, avoiding career-breaking mismanagement. Botched responses to Hurricane Katrina tarnished the reputations of almost everyone involved, including President Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Only Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour escaped unscathed — a selling point he could have used had he run for president this year.
So far, all the elected officials dealing with Sandy have gotten high marks and stayed true to their characteristic governing styles. Democrat O’Malley, a fierce attack dog for the Obama administration and one of the most highly visible governors, made sure he was accessible and proactive, urging caution and preemptively shutting down the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
“It can’t hurt,” Herb Smith, a Maryland political analyst, said of O’Malley’s command of the storm and his future political ambitions. “That’s very speculative, but you can’t take the next step in politics without a successful governorship.”
McDonnell didn’t have as much to contend with as his northern neighbors and was aided by the fact that Obama and Romney immediately stopped campaigning in his state in preparation for the storm. He didn’t ultimately get the nod to be Romney’s running mate, but McDonnell could still be a contender for a future Senate run or a Cabinet position should Romney win.
“He’s a conservative politically but stylistically he’s a pragmatist,” said Dan Palazzo, a political-science professor at the University of Richmond. “His style was consistent with what one would expect: organized, clear, matter of fact, nonpartisan.”
The notoriously disciplined Cuomo remained notoriously disciplined, doing briefings on Long Island and Manhattan and sounding an uplifting note about the spirit of New Yorkers. “He took the right steps at the right time, and devoted the right amount of energy and attention to it,” said political scientist Gerald Benjamin of the State University of New York at New Paltz. “His capacity to think politically effectively is truly extraordinary.”
The massive storm was also a window on the style of two mayors who may have higher ambitions. Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker showed off his social-media skills and activist streak, showering residents with attention via Twitter (“Heading to 1 Court St and 2 Nevada, more senior citizen high rises to help deliver food & supplies,” he tweeted on Wednesday afternoon). New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, sounded a bit like a helicopter parent. “This may be a good time to stay hunkered into your home,” he said during his pre-storm press conference. “Have a sandwich out of the fridge. Sit back, and watch the television.”