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Why Christie's praise of Obama matters

Let’s be honest: for the last four years, President Obama has struggled to find any Republicans to work with. It’s not for lack of trying.

Let’s be honest: for the last four years, President Obama has struggled to find any Republicans to work with.

It’s not for lack of trying.

Conservatives believe the president is a polarizing figure despite his appointment of several Republicans to the senior ranks of his administration, including the secretaries of Defense and Transportation.

They think he’s a socialist despite his copying many of the GOP’s healthcare reform ideas.

And they somehow find it unpalatable to agree with him at a time of national testing, whether overseas in Libya or at home after the financial meltdown of 2008.

You could be forgiven for thinking there’s a pattern here. After all, Congressional Republicans (including current VP candidate Paul Ryan) met on the night of Obama’s inauguration to plot how they could oppose every single bill, including the Recovery Act.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP’s leader and mastermind, explained his strategy to the New York Times when he described his plan to torpedo healthcare reform:

“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” McConnell explained. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.”

All of which makes Governor Chris Christie’s ringing endorsement of President Obama’s handling of the storm so important in these closing days of the 2012 campaign.

We don’t know yet know what the political impact of Hurricane Sandy will be. Perhaps voters will appreciate the federal response to the disaster; perhaps they won’t care. Perhaps early voting will be affected, and perhaps it won’t affect enough states to make much difference.

Gov. Christie, on the other hand, has already made an impact. On Wednesday he will tour the disaster zone with President Obama, after two days of heaping praise on the Polarizing One.

“The president has been all over this, and he deserves great credit,” Christie told msnbc’s Morning Joe. “He gave me his number at the White House and told me to call him if I needed anything, and he absolutely means it. It’s been very good working with the president and his administration. It’s been wonderful.”

Christie explained that he had spoken directly with the president on Monday. “He asked me what I needed. I said if he could expedite the Major Disaster Declaration without all the normal FEMA mumbo-jumbo. He got right on it,” he added. “I got a call from FEMA at 2 a.m…and then this morning I understand he signed the Major Disaster Declaration for New Jersey.”

Christie isn’t just any East Coast governor. He was the keynote speaker at the Republican convention this year. He was hotly tipped as a VP pick by some of the most influential conservative pundits in the nation.

He’s the kind of Republican who has built a reputation for calling it like he sees it; for cutting through the verbiage to deliver the truth.

And now he says President Obama has been “wonderful.”

This is the kind of Republican support that President Obama first promised, but has struggled to deliver– at least in Washington.

Back in the day, there was a state senator Obama who first rose to prominence by delivering a 2004 keynote speech of his own, when he seemed to suggest that he might be able to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans.

Later, as a freshman U.S. senator, the same Obama chose to make his first intervention on national politics about the abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina.

At the time, he shot down the idea that FEMA’s failure was because of race. “The ineptitude was colorblind,” he said, pointing out the basic flaw in the planning: that anyone could just climb into an SUV and check into a hotel with a credit card. “I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our government towards the least of these.”

That passive indifference of government is what you might end up with if FEMA is downsized, or reduced to the kind of backseat role that Governor Romney has suggested. It would be passive because states would take the lead – even more than they do today – or because private organizations would fill the space left by a smaller, or perhaps abolished, FEMA.

Those are radical ideas at a time when half the Eastern Seaboard is struggling with flood and wind damage. Radical ideas were fine during the Republican primaries, when the most recent disaster was the sad fate of a Missouri town destroyed by tornadoes.

Now, however, the ideas are best avoided altogether. Which is exactly what Romney did on Tuesday, when TV reporters asked him no less than five times about his position on FEMA. Somehow, Gov. Romney failed to hear the question.

He can run but he cannot hide from the FEMA question for the next six days.

Candidates for president are at a clear disadvantage at times like these. They cannot deliver aid or federal dollars to disaster zones. They cannot hug victims and speak for the nation in expressing sympathy for those who have suffered.

But they can at least answer the question about what role – passive or active – the federal government should take at a time of crisis. If you’re running to be CEO of Washington soon after one such crisis, you might have some views you can share on the subject.

The bipartisan view is pretty simple: there are no Republican or Democratic victims of Hurricane Sandy. There are just victims, who need the help of anyone with the resources and technical expertise to do so.

Just as there were no partisan victims when the housing bubble burst, when the banks collapsed, and the automakers were days away from shuttering their factories.

At those times, an active government is all that stands between communities and the economic abyss.

If a brash conservative like Governor Christie can appreciate that, so can the broader Republican party. Otherwise there’s little chance any president – Obama or Romney – can change the dynamic in Washington any time soon.