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“Time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life.” John F.Kennedy

Obama, Christie and Ebola

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In their responses to the crisis, Christie once again plays yang to the president's yin

The flare-up highlights, yet again, the sharply contrasting leadership styles of the two men in a crisis. 
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And it demonstrates why the pugilistic governor of New Jersey, whether ally or adversary, has emerged over these years as the yang to Obama&amp;rsquo;s yin, the closest thing this president has to a genuine foil. (Yahoo News/AP Photo)" />

Somehow, Chris Christie has again managed to make himself the most talked-about Republican in the country on the eve of an election in which he isn't on the ballot. He did it, you'll recall, in the fall of 2012, when he bonded with Barack Obama while touring the hurricane-ravaged Jersey Shore, after which Obama even called Bruce Springsteen from Air Force One so Christie could fanboy out. The Romney guys never got over that.

And now, with the midterm elections just a week away, Christie finds himself at the center of another storm as he stares down the federal government over the question of what to do with aid workers returning from West Africa. Christie has decided he can forcibly quarantine travelers at risk of Ebola, with or without working toilets. Obama thinks it's fine to send them home with a request not to go around potentially exposing everyone to one of the planet's deadliest viruses (if it's not too much trouble).

The flare-up highlights, yet again, the sharply contrasting leadership styles of the two men in a crisis. And it demonstrates why the pugilistic governor of New Jersey, whether ally or adversary, has emerged over these years as the yang to Obama's yin, the closest thing this president has to a genuine foil.

In preceding administrations, generally speaking, someone in Congress filled that contrasting role in the public mind. Ronald Reagan had Tip O'Neill, who, despite the now legendary comity between the two men, could be acid in his ideological critique. Bill Clinton, of course, found his bizarro counterpart in Newt Gingrich. George W. Bush did battle with a succession of Democratic leaders, but his real foil was probably John McCain, who went from chief irritant to valuable ally as the years unfolded.

But Obama never seemed to care enough about Washington relationships to form any lasting alliances or rivalries. He's had episodes of cooperating and jousting with the likes of John Boehner or Eric Cantor (you remember him — squirrelly-looking guy, glasses, used to run the House Republicans), but mostly he's kept his distance from congressional leaders, and none has proven sufficiently visionary to really rise above the din of partisanship.

Obama doesn't have an especially deep relationship with Christie, either. But their complicated bond-and-rivalry thing began, away from public view, not long after Christie took office in 2010, when he turned out to greet the president at an airstrip in Newark. Disembarking from Air Force One, Obama asked after the governor's family, and Christie told him that he had wanted to bring his children to meet Obama, but White House aides had denied the request.

As Christie later relayed this story to me, Obama was visibly annoyed and invited him to bring his family to the White House for a private meeting. Christie took him up on it during that holiday season of 2010 and was deeply impressed with the amount of time Obama spent talking with his children. The two men built a foundation of trust that emerged publicly only two years later, after Superstorm Sandy hit.

You can imagine there is something in each man that the other admires or even envies. Obama has an easiness and cool, a grace both physical and temperamental, that Christie knows he lacks. And yet, for all his oratorical skill, Obama has nothing like the intuitive capacity for emotion and metaphor that enables Christie to turn a roomful of doubters into potential supporters.

Ideologically, of course, Obama and Christie are far apart — though probably not as far on some big issues as their supporters and detractors would like to believe. Obama would never have gone after the teachers union — or any political opponent, for that matter — in quite the way that Christie did in his first term, but he almost certainly sympathized with the underlying critique. Obama's "Race to the Top," an initiative aimed at reforming moribund school bureaucracies and spurring more charter schools, was only somewhat less odious to the union than Christie's relentless attacks.

And although he would never say so, it's a good bet that Christie would have taken the debt-cutting deal with entitlement cuts that Obama offered congressional Republicans in 2011, even with the added tax revenue that Boehner couldn't sell to his caucus. Christie hammered out similar compromises with Democrats in his own legislature.

What separate the two men more profoundly than their worldviews, really, are their dueling ideas of what leadership looks like. Obama, as we've seen yet again during this Ebola scare, is deliberate and cerebral. He disdains the dramatic gesture, which is why he's loath even to cancel a golf game for the sake of appearances. Obama is manically analytical. He defers to experts, because experts have knowledge, and knowledge is power.

Christie, on the other hand, is impulsive and theatrical. Like most major politicians who aren't part of the Ivy League establishment, he bristles at the condescension of academics and exalts the value of common sense. His instinct is to act first and rationalize later, to find an adversary — a union, a heckler, a virus —and bury it.

Obama tolerates disorder, in both his administration and the events swirling around him, because he believes the world to be naturally disorderly, and he's a bit fatalistic about it. Christie seeks to impose order on everything, forcefully and urgently, because he fundamentally believes, I think, that the purpose of politics is to minimize uncertainty.

Were all of this just a difference of style between a president and a governor, it would be merely interesting. But in fact, Obama and Christie encapsulate what has been, more often than not, a more general divide between the two parties in the modern era.

It wasn't always this way; there was a time, going back to Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy and Johnson, when boldness and risk were mostly Democratic traits, while Wall Street Republicans stepped carefully within the confines of accumulated wisdom. (It was FDR, don't forget, who threw more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans into camps to keep them from spreading disloyalty, which makes Christie's call for quarantines look Solomonic by comparison.)

But at least since Ronald Reagan — and more recently to Gore vs. Bush, then Kerry vs. Bush, and then Obama vs. McCain — the two parties have in most cases offered the opposite choice, between Republican "deciders" to use Bush's word, and Democratic deliberators. One party runs hot, the other cold.

And on this matter of management philosophy, as on policy or cultural issues, Americans seem closely divided. We do fear disorder and bureaucratic paralysis; are the liberties of a few, heroic health care workers really worth the remote chance of more deaths? But at the same time, hasn't the country made enough mistakes acting out of impulse? Don't we need some sober analysis in the face of hysteria?

Christie is probably betting that the style he's displayed yet again in the Ebola debate can be an asset in the 2016 presidential contest, which will start to take shape soon after next week's elections. Last time around, the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, who is just as cool and calculating as Obama and who offered little by way of flattering contrast. They likely won't go that route again.

Christie has his flaws as both a foil and a candidate, but lack of boldness has never been one of them.

 

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Published by , 01.11.2014 at 18:01
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Lucas Manning
Lucas Manning 1 November 14 20:21 This article tries to give Obama too much credit. It looks to me like trying to turn indecisiveness into a strong character plus. Text hided expand
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Gillian Snow
Gillian Snow 1 November 14 21:17 Ebola, something else for Americans to be paranoid about. Fear is good. Text hided expand
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