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Post Leadership
Posted at 01:54 PM ET, 02/28/2011

What is it about Chris Christie? The benefits of creating a common foe

What is it about Chris Christie? The New Jersey governor is everywhere these days. At the American Enterprise Institute. On Face the Nation. On the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

The sharp-talking former prosecutor is known for being blunt; for having a "who cares what they think" swagger and saying what others won't. Much of his appeal is undoubtedly due to his plain-spoken style, which gives him the rare ability to make complex and dull topics like pensions and budget deficits not only simple but captivating.

But his real skill, the Times' Matt Bai argues, is not just the bluntness or the bluster. What he's really been able to do is rally his followers' frustration around "the ideal adversary for this moment of economic vertigo": public-sector employee unions. Even if the problems of dealing with the pensions and benefits of the public-sector workforce are a critical budget issue of our times, and even if Christie's ire is focused on the unions rather than their members, he knowingly or unknowingly is deploying one of the oldest methods of leadership persuasion around. He's giving "an uneasy public," Bai writes, "the scapegoat it demands."

Like immigrants amid the outsourcing debate or Wall Street bankers during the financial crisis, leaders have long pointed to a group of people to whom the public might direct its anger. Many without jobs are surely watching the public sector's more stable employment with increasing dismay. And many in the private sector who have managed to stay employed have seen their salaries, health-care benefits and pensions get whittled away, if not become a relic of the past. Public-sector employees may be the perfect foil for many American workers living out this economy's long unemployment nightmare.

Or they may not. Recent Gallup polls show that many voters aren't taking the bait. Among respondents who make $60,000 to $89,000, for instance, 53 percent oppose Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's attempts to effectively end collective bargaining rights for some public-sector employee unions. The numbers are even higher in lower income brackets.

Still, it's working well enough that Christie has had success, not only with the political battles he's won but in the court of public opinion, too. The Times reports that only 27 percent of New Jersey voters have a favorable view of the teachers' union, with whom Christie has fought vociferously. Christie, meanwhile, has an approval rating above 50 percent. And he's quickly becoming the poster boy for a growing club of governors looking to make similarly big changes to the public-sector workforce.

Christie would likely say that he is only speaking the hard truths about the future of his state and what must be done to get costs under control. But a big reason why his message works so well is that he's found another adversary for voters fretting over their finances. And all the swagger and simple speech in the world isn't quite as powerful as a common foe.

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By  |  01:54 PM ET, 02/28/2011

 
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