When a resident in this hard-hit town approached Christie on Wednesday to complain that FEMA had failed to help his neighborhood in the past, the governor assured him that his buddy in the Oval Office would make it right.
“Don’t you worry, pal,” said Christie, wearing white Nikes, gray suit pants and a blue fleece jacket. “I will be with the president this afternoon.”
The sudden love-in between Christie and Obama entered its second day Wednesday, when the two surveyed the destruction from helicopters that glided over submerged streets, blown-out windows, and homes flattened and aflame. They walked together and posed for photos with locals and schoolkids along the coast, with Christie taking the lead, connecting physically and emotionally and acting like the president’s ambassador to his cherished New Jerseyans.
“I want to just let you know that your governor is working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible, everybody can get back to normal,” Obama told members of a community center in Brigantine after the helicopter ride.
At a subsequent news conference in front of a pile of boats at the Brigantine marina, Christie thanked the president for their “great working relationship” and said Obama had “sprung into action immediately.”
Not long ago, such a statement from the Jersey-to-the-fullest governor might have been construed as a veiled threat. A former federal prosecutor who made his name with corruption convictions, he is the closest thing government has to a street brawler. A Springsteen-quoting Jersey native, Christie has won the hearts of conservatives for pushing tough fiscal measures, including deep cuts that were setbacks for unions, through a Democratic legislature. He has also relished his role berating anyone and everyone who stands in his way.
That has often included the president. As a leading surrogate for Republican Mitt Romney, Christie has been a regular critic of Obama on the campaign trail.
At a Romney rally 10 days (and a seeming lifetime) ago, the governor offered that Obama is “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue,” adding that “he’s like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership, and he just can’t find it.”
Now he is more apt to describe his relationship with Obama as “wonderful,” as he did in the aftermath of the disaster.
There is no professed motivation for Christie’s newfound feelings for the president, other than that the two men are now partners in a massive effort to rebuild his state. Asked about the election on “Fox & Friends,” Christie said, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested,” adding: “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”
A benefit in 2016?
Whether or not there is a political motivation here for the governor, there is certainly a potentially big benefit. Insofar as he is talked about as a serious contender in the 2016 presidential race — he nearly took the plunge this year — putting himself above politics to help his home state in a time of disaster is the sort of thing that voters tend to admire.
The friendship is also not a bad development for Obama. With only a week until the election, the president doesn’t seem to be the least bit bothered to have one of the most charismatic figures in the Republican Party at his side.
The obvious odd man out is Romney. When asked by a reporter Wednesday whether Christie’s praise of Obama annoys him, senior Romney strategist Russ Schriefer — who was an adviser on Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign — said the governor is simply doing what he was elected to do.
“Governor Christie is doing his job,” Schriefer said. “He is the governor of a state that has been hit by a very, very horrific storm, there’s tremendous damage, people have lost their lives, and he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing as the governor of New Jersey. And the president is doing what he needs to do as president, and this is a case of the governor doing his job. So I think that’s it.”
In action on Wednesday, Christie seemed anything but calibrated for politics. The people who count the most to him, the people of New Jersey, don’t think he is anything but entirely on the level.
“Christie is a straight shooter,” said Steve Butts, a 56-year-old Obama supporter, who had found the one place on Bordentown Avenue with hot coffee — a convenience store that heated it on a gas-operated hot plate.
As Christie’s helicopter approached for a landing across the street, Butts, who did not vote for him in the last election, said he liked all the positive things he heard his governor say about Obama on his transistor radio, including that he didn’t care a wink about the election and was thinking only about the devastated people of his state. “That’s what he needs to do.”
‘Christie calls it like it is’
A few minutes later, the governor’s motorcade reached Williams Street, where floods had eroded the foundations of homes, which looked shipwrecked on soggy lawns. Hoses connected to pumps gushed water onto the street.
Christie draped his arm over shoulders, patted people on the back and looked teary men and women in the eye. Joanne Martino wept into the “Chris Christie ★Governor★” insignia on his blue fleece, sobbing that “I don’t have a house anymore” and “we love you, but we need help.”
When the governor, bending over a child with cystic fibrosis, learned that he needed power for his nebulizer, he ordered his staff to “take this kid somewhere where he has power and heat!”
“Christie calls it like it is, he’s aboveboard,” said Margaret Fogarty, who had come to support her daughter, who lives on the street. She said she hadn’t decided whom to vote for in the presidential race, but added, “it gives me a better feeling about the president, because Christie’s working with him.”
Her granddaughter, Samantha Taggert, said she had gained respect for Christie. “He stepped up to the plate and put politics aside,” she said. “A lot of Republicans wouldn’t do that.”
As Christie surveyed the water pit that was once Cody Buck’s basement, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, dressed in a matching blue fleece, bantered about the election with Democratic Assemblyman Craig Coughlan. Coughlan said he was pulling for his president, prompting Guadagno to lean over and say, “who is the luckiest man I know.”
Christie moved down the block in a scrum of neighbors and reporters. He told three girls in pajamas that “Halloween will be on Monday in New Jersey!” and accepted a handshake from Fred Salamon, a 72-year-old Obama supporter.
“I’m a Democrat, and I voted for ya,” Salamon said. “I hope you run again next time, for president.”
After stepping over waterlogged VHS tapes and children’s action figures inside the home of Dolores Beaton, 62, he told the crowd that he had to be going.
“I got to go see the president now,” Christie said, raising his voice for the first time that morning. “He’s coming to town, and I don’t want to keep him waiting. I don’t want him to think I’m rude.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.