Charlie Crist Hugs Barack Obama All Over Again

The once-and-maybe-future Florida governor says “it’s hard” to think of a policy difference between him and the president — and he even excuses the Obamacare rollout.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) embraces former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist as he takes the stage during a campaign on the campus of St. Petersburg College September 8, 2012 in St Petersburg, Florida. Working with the momentum from this week's Democratic National Convention, Obama is doing a two-day campaign swing from one side of Florida to the other on the politically important I-4 corridor.
National Journal
By Beth Reinhard
Add to Briefcase
By Beth Reinhard
Feb. 9, 2014, 9:16 a.m.

You’d think Charlie Crist would know bet­ter.

He nearly des­troyed his polit­ic­al ca­reer five years ago by wrap­ping his arms around Barack Obama. And now he’s do­ing it again.

He’s prais­ing Obama for the fed­er­al aid in 2009 that helped Flor­ida bal­ance its budget and for spear­head­ing the BP oil-spill cleanup in 2010. He says that “it’s hard” to think of policy dif­fer­ences between him and Obama. He be­lieves Obama has done “a tre­mend­ous job” as pres­id­ent.

And he’ll even ex­cuse the calam­itious rol­lout of the Obama­care web­site. “You can’t con­trol everything,” he said in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al last week. “I un­der­stand that hav­ing been the chief ex­ec­ut­ive of a big state.”

Things are dif­fer­ent now for Crist. When he hugged Obama in 2009, Crist was a Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor about to be run over by the tea-party re­volu­tion. Now he’s a Demo­crat, try­ing to win back the gov­ernor’s of­fice after a failed run for the Sen­ate.

But things are dif­fer­ent for Obama, too. Demo­crats ran to­ward the new pres­id­ent in 2009. Now some of them are run­ning away. While Crist is em­bra­cing Obama all over again, two oth­er lead­ing Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates for gov­ernor in big swing states won by Obama — Mary Burke of Wis­con­sin and Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania — both de­clined to join the pres­id­ent when he vis­ited as part of a post-State of the Uni­on swing late last month. Two Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors fa­cing tough reelec­tions, Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana and Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, also skipped re­cent ap­pear­ances by Obama in their states, al­though Landrieu rode on Air Force One with the pres­id­ent. Alaska Demo­crat Mark Be­gich really spelled out his de­sire for dis­tance. “I don’t need him cam­paign­ing for me,” he said. “I need him to change some of his policies.”

Not Crist. “I’d be de­lighted to” cam­paign with him, he said. “I’m proud of him. I’m proud he’s my friend.”

There are few reas­ons why Crist may want to stay close to Obama. Flor­ida Demo­crats are eager to un­seat Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Rick Scott, but some re­main skep­tic­al of Crist, a Re­pub­lic­an-turned-in­de­pend­ent-turned-Demo­crat. Crist’s loy­alty to Obama tells Demo­crats he’s one of them — a stamp of ap­prov­al that a lifelong Demo­crat wouldn’t need. What’s more, Crist is fre­quently cri­ti­cized for chan­ging his po­s­i­tions on is­sues, in­clud­ing abor­tion, guns, and gay mar­riage, and run­ning away from Obama would look like just an­oth­er flip-flop.

Re­pub­lic­ans are de­term­ined to make the midterm a ref­er­en­dum on the pres­id­ent, so wheth­er can­did­ates ap­pear with Obama or not, they’re go­ing to be tagged as Obama Demo­crats. Crist fig­ures he might as well own it.

The oth­er pos­sib­il­ity is that Crist’s polit­ic­al weath­er vane is out of whack.

Back in 2006, on the eve of his elec­tion as gov­ernor, he de­clined to ap­pear at a North Flor­ida rally with an­oth­er un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent, George W. Bush. “You chick­en­shit!” Bush ad­viser Karl Rove bel­lowed at him, ac­cord­ing to Crist’s new mem­oir. At that time, Bush’s na­tion­al ap­prov­al was at 38 per­cent. But Obama’s num­bers in Flor­ida are only slightly bet­ter, pegged at 42 per­cent ap­prov­al and 53 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al in the latest Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll. He’s un­der­wa­ter with wo­men, men, in­de­pend­ents, Re­pub­lic­ans, and white voters.

No won­der Flor­ida Demo­crat Alex Sink, who’s run­ning for Con­gress in a spe­cial elec­tion, spent more time in her latest cam­paign ad talk­ing about fix­ing Obama­care than singing its praises. “We need to keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong,” she says in the tele­vi­sion spot. “I’ll work with Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats for health care that’s af­ford­able and works for us.”

Even Obama re­cog­nizes he’s ra­dio­act­ive in some places these days, telling Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors in a closed-door meet­ing last week that he “would not be of­fen­ded” if they pre­ferred to cam­paign without him.

Still, Crist en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally re­counts his de­cision to ap­pear with the pres­id­ent at a town hall in Fort My­ers in 2009 when he was tout­ing his eco­nom­ic-stim­u­lus plan. (“He hugged me and I hugged him, and that sent Marco Ru­bio in­to or­bit, ” Crist re­calls, re­fer­ring to his rival for the U.S. Sen­ate in 2010.) He’s also happy to talk about his de­cision as gov­ernor to ex­tend early vot­ing hours to handle the long lines lead­ing in­to Obama’s elec­tion in 2008. (“It’s nev­er been for me Right versus Left be­cause of my par­ents,” he said, “It’s al­ways been right versus wrong.”)

Demo­crat­ic strategist Steve Schale, who helped Obama win Flor­ida in 2008 and 2012, is among a num­ber of Obama team mem­bers work­ing for Crist, in­clud­ing poll­ster John An­za­lone and cam­paign man­ager Jim Mess­ina. And Schale says Crist’s long em­brace of the pres­id­ent is just fine by him.

“Frankly,” said Schale, “it is re­fresh­ing to see a politi­cian not look at a poll first to de­cide who their friends should be.”

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