With a cloud of bad news hanging over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in his home state, the potential 2016 presidential candidate was in Washington D.C. on Tuesday where he delved head first into several foreign policy issues – taking veiled swipes at the Obama administration on both Cuba and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Christie was in the nation’s capital to speak at the 45th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas. He was the only state official invited to speak – joining an impressive lineup that included Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
While Kerry, during his morning remarks, emphasized that the U.S. is “committed to the path of normalized relations” with Cuba and praised President Obama’s “courageous” decision to end 50 years of frozen relations with the communist country, Christie, a few hours later, struck a very different tone. The governor criticized Cuba as a regime run by a dictatorial family “that denies civil rights and freedoms to their people.”
The governor pointed to the case of Joanne Chesimard (a.k.a. Assata Shakur), a member of the Black Panther Party who fled to Cuba after being convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1977.
“Send Joanne Chesimard back, then maybe we can talk” about normalizing relations, he said at the event. The governor did not take direct aim at President Obama on the issue like he did last week in the early voting state of New Hampshire, where he characterized Obama’s decision to normalize relations as “national disgrace.” Still, Christie on Tuesday said, “I have no problem with Cuba becoming a member of the family of civilized nations in this country, but first they have to act in a civilized way.”
The governor also criticized the federal government’s delay in making a decision on the Keystone pipeline, which would create an oil transport system from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Christie suggested the U.S. was acting in an “insulting” manner toward Canada and said, “that’s not what you do with friends.” Proponents of the project—mainly labor unions, oil companies and Republicans argue the plan would create thousands of jobs and make the country less dependent on oil from the Middle East. Critics say the project would release dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, would not bring in significant numbers of new jobs and would not affect U.S. gas prices.
Christie also suggested the current U.S. administration is not investing in enough time in developing relationships with its allies in the Americas. “We can’t anticipate when we’ll need them and when they need us. It’s easier if it’s the sixth phone call rather than the first,” said the governor.
According to a new Quinnipiac poll, Christie’s job approval rating hit an all-time low among Garden State voters, with only 38% approving of his job performance. Separately, New Jersey’s largest teachers union said on Tuesday that it was ending talks with the governor about pension reform. During his budget address earlier this year, Christie extolled the fact that the New Jersey Education Association -- a group he has repeatedly butted heads with – was working with his administration to fix the beleaguered system.
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor, told msnbc in a statement that NJEA’s decision was “unfortunate” and that the administration will continue to work with a non-partisan commission to “solve this crisis.”
And on the 2016 front, New Jersey State Sen. Joe Kyrillos (a longtime political ally of Christie’s) has decided to back Jeb Bush in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. The news was first reported by the Washington Post.
Christie’s emphasis on foreign policy comes as he is trying to push the 2016 reset button as he finds himself near the back of the pack of the emerging GOP field. In New Hampshire last week, Christie even took a jab at potential competitor, Jeb Bush, arguing he doesn’t’ know where the former governor of Florida stands on foreign policy.
Christie – like many of his potential competitors – has very little foreign policy experience. Before his trip to Mexico last fall, which was billed as an economic trade mission, the governor had taken just one other trip outside the country as governor—to Israel in 2012. Since the Mexico visit, he’s gone on similar trips to both England and Canada.
The governor was asked during a Q&A on Tuesday by Susan Segal, president and CEO of the Council of the Americas, if he had any more foreign trips planned in the near future. Perhaps a nod to 2016, Christie said he’s “working on my day job at the moment” and has “a lot of things on my plate.” He quickly added, however, “for these kinds of trips, you just have to make the time.”