Political marriage between Chris Christie and President Obama breaks up over Sandy aid rift

Christie’s full CPAC speech: The New Jersey governor enjoyed an enthusiastic reception from the crowd of conservatives. (The Associated Press)

The once-budding friendship between President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reached its zenith in May on a storm-ravaged boardwalk in Point Pleasant, N.J.

After Obama missed four throws at a carnival game, Christie stepped in, picked up a football and tossed it through a hoop, winning the president a stuffed bear.

“One and done,” the governor said as a crowd cheered and the two men exchanged a high-five.

On Thursday, however, Christie used an appearance before the Conservative Political Action Conference to blast Obama in personal terms, as a weak leader.

Accusing Obama of sitting on the sidelines during bipartisan debt talks, Christie said, “If that’s your attitude, Mr. President, what the hell are we paying you for?”

His invite got lost in the mail last year, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was still the hot topic of conversation at CPAC. So what were conservatives saying? (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

The stark contrast between then and now demonstrated how the bond nurtured by the odd couple after Hurricane Sandy has unraveled — and been replaced by a feud between two politicians who no longer stand to benefit from the appearance of a close partnership.

At the root of recent tension is a disagreement about relief for New Jersey residents affected by the hurricane, which hit in October 2012. Christie in recent days has blamed Obama and his administration for getting in the way of help reaching the state.

Christie’s frustration has become a theme of his town-hall meetings, and he has called FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — the “new F-word.”

Christie, struggling to contain a traffic scandal that has ensnared many of his appointees, is moving to strengthen his connection to skeptical conservatives and salvage his hopes of running for president in 2016. Crucial to that effort is demonstrating that he is critical of a Democratic president whom most Republicans loathe.

To many in both parties, Christie’s harsh critique of the man he once courted was inevitable. The alliance had been, in many ways, a marriage of political convenience. It helped Obama solidify his standing with centrist voters in his reelection bid and gave Christie a boost as he ran again last year in the heavily Democratic state.

“These were never two guys who could sit down in a bar and watch the game on TV,” said former New Jersey governor Richard Codey (D). “The relationship was symbiotic, and now it’s gone.”

Obama’s team has played down talk of a split. “Since the day Hurricane Sandy made landfall, the president has been determined to put politics aside and coordinate with local officials to meet the needs of those Americans who were impacted by the storm,” said Bobby Whithorne, a White House spokesman. “We appreciate Governor Christie’s close coordination during the ongoing recovery, and we hope it will continue.”

Yet some Democrats say Christie’s recent attacks on the federal government are an attempt to deflect blame from residents who have found it cumbersome to deal with state agencies tasked with distributing federal money.

In December, New Jersey quietly fired two contractors who were managing the distribution of recovery grants. Residents had been complaining that the contractors often lost paperwork and required applications to be submitted multiple times. State officials did not announce the change for weeks.

“Now it’s the federal government’s fault? Now it’s the bureaucracy? What about the state bureaucracy?” asked Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), who has urged the state to reveal more information about the contractor issues.

But Christie’s associates say the dispute over Sandy aid has created a chill with the White House that a year ago would have seemed implausible.

Another beachfront visit by the president is not in the works, and Christie has not spoken with Obama since November, when the president briefly called to congratulate the governor on his reelection. Even then, Obama did so only after Christie wondered at a news conference — days after winning — why he had not reached out.

Christie also has clashed with Obama officials over their handling of federal flood insurance, arguing that New Jersey deserves much more than the $10 billion in disaster aid it expects to receive and complaining about the long application process for people seeking financial support.

State officials have said that federal rules have slowed the distribution of recovery money.

At a forum in late February, Christie recounted one of his last — and terse — conversations with the president. He said he asked Obama to back expanded insurance coverage for secondary homeowners, but he declined.

“He’s thinking about the $5 million house on the beach in Bay Head. He thinks, ‘Well, I’m not going to cover that guy,’ ” Christie said, as he spoke at a veterans hall. “I said, ‘Hell, man, I’m not asking you to cover that guy.’ ”

In Middletown, N.J., the crowd — full of middle-income workers who use a second home as a source of income — murmured its approval.

In Toms River, N.J., on Tuesday, Christie reiterated his concerns. “The federal government should get the hell out of the flood insurance business because they don’t do it right,” he said. “I wish I had a magic wand and a checkbook.”

Some Republican officials said Christie’s rhetoric is not personal but reflects his unhappiness about a breakdown in aspects of the federal-state relationship and how it is affecting aid distribution.

“I’m not sure the governor has feelings about President Obama one way or the other,” state Sen. Samuel Thompson (R) said.

Christie’s distancing from Obama has increased as the governor’s poll numbers have slipped. On Wednesday, a Rutgers-Eagleton survey showed that 54 percent of New Jersey voters favor his management of Hurricane Sandy issues, a drop of 26 percentage points since November. Thirty-six percent disapprove, a 10-point increase since January.

The CPAC, an event that brings together conservatives, libertarian college students and tea party leaders for three days of talks, offered an opportunity for Christie to showcase his displeasure with the president he once considered an ally.

In describing Obama’s hands-off approach to a special congressional supercommittee that had been tasked with deficit reduction, Christie said: “Man, that’s leadership, isn’t it? You’re the leader of the government, you see something getting ready to go off the rails, and what you decide to do is stay as far away from it as possible.”

As with most breakups, there is also a soundtrack.

After Hurricane Sandy, Obama, traveling with Bruce Springsteen aboard Air Force One, called Christie to discuss the storm and then handed the phone to the rocker, who is a Garden State icon and Christie’s boyhood hero.

The conversation between the left-leaning musician and the Republican governor was light and reflected the kinship between Obama and Christie, who at the time were calling each other multiple times a day, sometimes late into the evening.

“The president told me if I had one more minute, there was someone else he wanted me to talk to,” Christie told reporters, his face beaming. “It was great to talk to the president and even better to talk to Bruce.”

These days, Christie and Obama rarely connect, and Springsteen has appeared in a late-night television parody of Christie’s troubles. But Christie still plays Springsteen’s wistful “We Take Care of Our Own” over the loudspeakers as he leaves town hall meetings.

Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.
Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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