The hug that never was: Christie-Obama embrace still reverberating politically one year later
One day far into the future, the image may stand alone from its catastrophic backdrop and be remembered just as much for having captured two U.S. presidents’ handshake.
That's a historical narrative Gov. Chris Christie and many of his political supporters have dreamed about since last October, when days after Sandy made landfall he and President Barack Obama met on a tarmac at Atlantic City Airport.
The photo will likely reappear many times in 2016, when as is widely expected, Christie will seek the Republican nomination for president. Political observers believe it could very well be used both for and against Christie’s political aspirations.
Its dual meaning is what makes the photograph — and others showing Christie and Obama touring the devastated coastal towns together last Oct. 31 — so significant and enduring.
(The photo has already entered into political folklore for — as many are recounting this week — putting to rest the myth that Christie and Obama ever “hugged.” They never did, or at least, it was never caught by camera.)
“The Obama photo op because of what’s happened with Sandy was the signal the decision was made that the governor was going to put New Jersey first, with understanding it’d hurt among conservatives,” Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said in an interview.
Christie’s willingness to greet Obama so openly has had repercussions still felt a year later.
Putting New Jersey so obviously above any political motives, as Murray put it, has cleared to the way for what many predict will be a landslide victory in next week’s gubernatorial election. And the huge margin of victory by a Republican seeking re-election in such a Democrat-heavy state will stoke excitement for his chances in the 2016 GOP primaries.
One leading Christie observer said Christie’s entire approach to post-Sandy leadership endeared him to an electorate weary from years of Washington D.C. political gamesmanship.
“How it became controversial in some quarters is just beyond me,” said Bob Ingle, senior political columnist for Gannett New Jersey and co-author of Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power. “There were some people in Christie’s party who thought that apparently they should have ignored the president, that Christie thanking him for trying to help was somehow the wrong thing to do. It is beyond me how someone could think like that.”
There’s no disputing that Christie’s popularity — and his leadership credentials nationally — grew in the months after Sandy.
His job approval rating in the year prior to Sandy was solidly in the 50s, but jumped to 70 percent after the storm, Murray said.
“Implicitly the ‘Obama hug’ and then calling [House Speaker] John Boehner out on Sandy aid was going to hamper him in 2016 and New Jersey gave him a lot of credit for that,” Murray said.
Christie’s approval rating is back into the 60s, but his appeal as a tough leader remains strong. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released last week found 72 percent of registered voters would describe him as “fighter” instead of “bully.”
Ingle said many who followed Christie as he led Sandy’s recovery effort late last year learned firsthand that reality is close to perception when it comes to his leadership style.
“Younger newspeople were worn out trying to cover it and keeping up with him,” Ingle said.
Whether he learned from the storm or not, Christie ever since has developed a knack for turning bad circumstances into positives.
“As with most things with Christie, negatives become positives for him,” Murray said, noting his campaign is probably excited for the potential of numerous conservative GOP politicians in 2016. “Their hope now is a number of conservatives will run. They’re happy with the success of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.”
The most recent Quinnipiac University Poll of Republican and Republican-leaning voters released early this month found Christie trailing only Paul, the U.S. senator from Kentucky, among a list of eight prominent GOP politicians if the 2016 Republican presidential election were held today. Paul received 17 percent, Christie received 13 percent and Texas' U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz had 10 percent.
Christie’s stances on social and fiscal policy would eventually play a role in a 2016 campaign, but personality and governing style will always be his “it” factor.
“I think what we saw there was two elected leaders acting like leaders. It’s incredible to me that people would be surprised by that,” Ingle said of the Christie-Obama photographs. “That’s why we elect people. The president, like the rest of country, knew we were hit hard. And thought he should be there and help anywhere he could. And Christie did exactly what we wanted.”