As Bridgeimbroglio unfolds in New Jersey, we are likely to get to a forensic tour through Chris Christie's administration. Democrats in the Legislature are investigating, the U.S. attorney is too, and the news media are picking through every trash bin. The Political Institute of Dark Arts is also probably doing an in-house review to see how someone could so badly mishandle the use of intimidation and political pressure.
These investigations will illuminate the case at hand and tell us whether Christie can survive as a presidential candidate. We are also going to learn something about power, and how it is wielded in modern politics. Christie’s administration was effective, in part, because it knew how to use a variety of the tools of power available to a governor.
We may also learn something about the presidency. Christie’s central presidential pitch is that he can be more effective than the president or Congress. Before the bridge scandal, voters had to sort of accept this on faith, or wait for a few in-depth stories to sketch out the details of the Christie Way. Now everyone has an opportunity to evaluate every piece of new evidence about the way he worked in New Jersey, in real time, and to imagine if it would work in Washington.
While Trenton turns, President Obama is wrestling afresh with his own paradox of presidential power: In some cases you don’t have much and in some cases you are accused of having too much. Entering his sixth year, President Obama is trying to create leverage to further his domestic agenda while at the same time battling members of Congress who want to limit his ability to negotiate with Iran and revisit his policy on spying.
Since Barack Obama barreled into office with his big 2008 election victory and the Tea Party reshaped congressional politics, we have been holding a national conversation about the limits of presidential power in Washington. How limited is the man, how limited is the office, and how constrained is this president by his opposition? In his State of the Union address, the president will call 2014 a "year of action.” That phrase is both a political trap and a sign of resignation. It's a trap because 2014 might not be a year of action at all. It's an election year where control of the Senate is at stake, which means the self-interest of members of Congress will most likely tilt them away from cooperation. By calling it a year of action the president hopes to put the blame on the other party if there isn't any. Nothing got done? Don’t blame me or the Democrats. We were ready for action. The president will also warn that he will take executive action wherever he can in order to make progress if Republicans in Congress won't meet him halfway.
Barack Obama has been looking for new sources of power since he came to Washington. He has tried to cajole with bipartisan gestures, to ram through legislation, he’s made big speeches to mobilize public opinion, and he tried to use his 2012 election victory to "break the fever." He has had mixed results. Throughout, his allies have made a consistent diagnosis: He should be tougher, like say Chris Christie. Sean Wilentz says he should have reformed the filibuster rules when Democrats held both houses of Congress and pushed through legislation. George Packer's "Obama's Lost Year,” paints the picture of an uncoordinated chief executive unwilling to take bold political chances. James Carville suggested the president lacked a certain anatomical manliness. Obama adviser David Axelrod admitted the president was "too eager" to play nice with the GOP. Michael Tomasky asked if Obama's lack of effort attacking Congress meant he was too weak to win in November 2012. The president is even accused of governing in the passive voice.
Chris Christie is not weak. He's on the other side of the scale. Until last week, that was seen, on balance, as an advantage. He'd been called a bully, but his brusque manner was seen as the sidecar to his ability to get things done. Christie’s tough-guy persona conveyed, as David Simon writes, a "plain-speaking insistence on results." Christie could be the perfect answer for a country that likes to elect presidents who are antidotes to their predecessors.
But would Christie's tough approach actually work in Washington? That's what we're going to get a chance to parse. The George Washington Bridge episode is an abuse of power, but it's also a gross miscarriage of the proper use of the political power of retaliation. (They killed a flea with a hydrogen bomb.) Politicians need to be able to retaliate, punish, and encourage. It's a requirement, particularly when formal powers don't give you leverage. You must create it by whatever means you can—as long as those tactics don't get you in trouble. It's clear from what we know about Chris Christie that he used these powers prodigiously, rewarding the mayors who played ball with him and punishing the allies and enemies who didn't.
What's clear from these accounts, though, is that if Christie’s little packets of retribution were a contributing factor in his success as governor, they will be impossible to duplicate as president. Why is that? If one of these stories of payback associated with Christie were about a president, it would melt cable news and freeze the Internet. Presidents just can’t throw around muscle in Washington in the same way. Two recent examples: When George W. Bush's office gently leaned on Sen. Jim Jeffords during the early period of the Bush presidency, it contributed to the Vermont senator’s abandonment of the Republican Party, which switched control of the Senate and put it in Democratic hands. When Barack Obama tried an old-fashioned act of horse-trading to win support for his health care plan with Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, the famous "Cornhusker kickback" became a scandal and had to be withdrawn.
Presidents are at once granted enormous power and faced with severe limitations on that power. So while President Obama is rubbing his lucky rabbit foot, minting new phrases and doing any other manner of hocus-pocus to conjure some domestic political power, he is being accused of abusing his national security powers. Friday he will give back some of that particular kind of power, announcing support for measures that will constrain the National Security Agency. On the recent agreement with Iran the president faces a revolt from Congress, which might pass a sanctions bill to punish Iran if it doesn’t stand by the commitments its leaders made to the president’s negotiators. The president says such a bill would kill the deal.
In both instances, the American people must trust the president to have their interests at heart and not abuse his office. Much of the Iran deal is secret and much of the executive branch's NSA and intelligence operations are secret, too (despite the Snowden revelations). For those who worry about an unchecked commander in chief, Obama's think-twice, reasoned approach might seem very attractive. He has never rushed off to do anything, and yet the president is still under fire.
This raises a different question for Chris Christie. It's not whether he has the capacity to build up the power a president needs in the domestic realm. The question is whether he and his team know when to employ restraint when they have a lot of power. (There was certainly no restraint when it came to tying up traffic on the George Washington Bridge.) Christie has a shorter fuse than Obama. He gets from A to Z fast. (To make a point about the dangers of isolationism, he brings in the heavy artillery of the attacks on 9/11 and its victims.) How much is Christie's internal operation—the workings of his administration—guided by his expedient temperament? When, by contrast, for the greater good did he not use his powers, even though he could?