New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can be excused for taking his time to decide whether he’s ready to jump into the White House race. It’s a huge personal decision, even as the remarkable clamor for the New Jersey Republican amounts to the closest thing possible to a draft in modern presidential politics.
A lower-key buzz focused initially on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but his fumbling start has not satisfied the hunger for something more filling than Mitt Romney. Before Perry, Michele Bachmann was the flavor of the moment, and now Herman Cain gets his turn.
Yet the real reason for the Christie clamor goes far beyond the limitations of the current candidates. In less than two years in office, he has demonstrated a knack for governing in ways that match this crucial moment in American history.
His is a vision best described as pragmatic idealism. He is about taking direct and forceful action without ever losing sight of the big picture.
As he said in his stirring speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, “The rule for effective government is simple: When you see a problem, you fix it.”
Later, he added, “You can’t wait for someone else to do it when you sit in the Oval Office.”
Christie understands that the most important deficit in the Obama White House is a deficit of leadership. He recognizes its absence as a prime cause of our national despair and its necessity if we are to restore confidence and progress.
In that sense, Christie is playing chess while the other candidates are playing checkers.
His “game” is not a matter of intellectual brilliance or a list of programmatic fixes. He is not an orthodox conservative and is deceptively flexible.
His “secret sauce” is a determination to act mixed with a willingness to compromise, and that fits the mood of most voters, especially independents.
The result is a charisma that is powerful without being precious. He is a fat man comfortable in his own skin who sees leadership as a verb.
I witnessed all this first hand at a recent event in Manhattan. Before watching him speak to an Aspen Institute gathering at Hunter College, I was prepared to like Christie based on his record of center-right reform in a blue state. I also found his no-nonsense straight talk refreshing, but the YouTubeification of his act made me wonder whether he was a one-trick pony.
I was pleasantly surprised. His reputation doesn’t capture the depths of his understanding, his sense of humor or his passion.
Of course, he can recite the problems of the budget and the economy and the rancid partisanship holding the country back. But repeating the litany of challenges and the need for bipartisanship is the lowest common denominator in politics. The real trick is crafting honest solutions the public will accept.
Christie’s gift is that he zeroes in on the singular role of the presidency in our political and cultural life. He sees presidential leadership not only as vital at home but as the key to a successful foreign policy.
Leadership wears many hats: being the broker when that is needed, a visionary, and always the source of courage to act with faith in America and its people.
The widespread disappointment with Obama is that he has failed to meet those tests. Now, in his desperate hour, the president blames the American people, saying last week they had “gotten a little soft.”
For his part, Christie understands the essence of the job as well as anyone can who has never held it. When he speaks about that level of leadership, he’s in his comfort zone. He’s not stretching for grand visions or trying to paint pretty word pictures. It’s action now, action later.
The result is a compelling public official who is the new face of hope and change. Whether he truly has the right stuff, we’ll know soon enough, one way or another.
For now, savor these words from his Reagan Library speech: “For American exceptionalism to truly deliver hope and a sterling example to the rest of the world, it must be demonstrated and not just asserted.”