How will confrontations like the one Chris Christie reportedly had with a teacher over the weekend look to U.S. voters if ultimately it's the White House rather than the governor's mansion that he's seeking?
Let's recap what happened Saturday. According to Slate's David Weigel, who was on the scene at the campaign stop, teacher Melissa Tomlinson asked Christie why he called New Jersey schools "failure factories." According to Weigel, Christie responded that he was sick of "you people," said the schools "fail because you guys are failing in those schools," and told her to "do your job" after she asked for more money for her students and her school. Tomlinson provided a similar account to a blogger. In the Star-Ledger, meanwhile, a Christie spokesperson disagreed with Tomlinson's version of events, saying that the governor instead told her "no matter how much money we spend, it will never be enough for you people."
Whatever the exact language, "you people" is not exactly a phrase most people expect to hear from a potential president—especially when used to refer to teachers. This of course is not Christie's first brush with notoriety for his blunt talk. He got attention earlier this year for calling a former White House doctor a "hack" who should "shut up" after she questioned his health. Last summer, he got into a heated exchange with a critic on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, again over his education policy. And a couple of years ago, he barked back to a parent who asked him why his kids weren't in public schools by telling her it was "none of your business."
Of course, one of the reasons Christie has so many fans—and is seen as such a formidable 2016 candidate who offers Republicans an alternative to the Tea Party's extremes—is his brash, direct style. His reputation is as a tough-talking, authoritative, unscripted and independent thinker who's unafraid to denounce the tactics of his party's far right wing as well as his opponents on the left. He's cultivated an image as a leader who takes command amid a sea of mealy-mouthed politicians who don't know how to take charge. If that means a few dust-ups and verbal spats here and there—well, that's what you get with someone who speaks his mind.
But there's a fine line between a few barbs that reinforce a no-nonsense image and the potential for tantrums that could ignite at any time. What comes off as authentic in New Jersey or strong leadership to the GOP faithful could look like an uncontrolled temper to those who are on the fence about his policies. "Direct" in one person's book is "disrespectful" in another's.
On the same weekend Christie responded brusquely to the teacher, the Star-Ledger wrote that he had been changing his tone and watching what he said. Surely if he ran for president, there would be pressure to do so even more. We want our presidents to be firmly principled, decisive and clear headed about the future, yes. But we also expect them to have a thick skin and a statesman-like demeanor, at least when it comes to voters.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.