New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got the best of President Obama at the arcades on Tuesday, but the test of football prowess was about the only moment they seemed like rivals rather than allies.
For Obama, the visit to the Jersey Shore gave him another chance to direct attention away from the three controversies that are dogging his administration: the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, the Justice Department’s seizure of reporters’ phone records and the handling of the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
The president seemed in a jocular mood, expressing his pleasure at escaping Washington’s partisan atmosphere, if only for a few hours.
“Now, last week, my advisers asked me — they said, Mr. President, do you want to spend next Tuesday in Washington, or would you rather spend it at the Jersey Shore?” he said in Asbury Park, to applause. “And I’ve got to say, I’ve got to make some tough decisions as president, but this wasn’t one of them.”
Earlier in the day, the duo arrived unannounced in Point Pleasant and walked along the boardwalk. While there, they played an arcade game centered on trying to throw a football through a tire.
According to the pool report, Obama “tried and missed a few times.” Christie nailed the throw on his first and only try.
“That’s because he’s running for office,” Obama told the crowd as he gave the governor a high five.
The official purpose of the visit was for Obama and Christie to tour the rebuilding efforts along the Jersey Shore, which have been progressing since Hurricane Sandy devastated the region more than six months ago.
Obama did his part to give the area a boost with a pitch to prospective travelers.
“America, bring your family and friends. Spend a little money on the Jersey Shore,” he said. “You’ll find some of the friendliest folks on Earth, some of the best beaches on Earth. And you’ll see that even after a tough couple of months, this place is as special as ever, and down the Shore, everything is still all right.”
The last lines, culled from the song “Jersey Girl,” formed a refrain in Obama’s speech. The song was written by Tom Waits but was further popularized by Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen has been an Obama supporter since his first campaign for the presidency. In his brief speech Tuesday, Obama referred to Springsteen as “the only guy a president still has to call ‘The Boss,’ other than the first lady.”
The New Jersey trip was just the latest move to help the White House direct attention away from the IRS scandal and other damaging controversies.
Last Thursday, the president delivered a major speech on national security, and gave an uncontroversial Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington on Monday. Sandwiched between the two, he toured tornado-stricken Oklahoma on Sunday.
Opinion among nonpolitical observers was divided as to the political usefulness of the day for Obama and Christie.
“For Obama, it certainly takes attention away for at least a day from all these other stories. It’s a good headline-grabber,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Zelizer added that, from Christie’s perspective, “it crystallizes the image of him as the one Republican maverick, or the one Republican who is willing to deal with Democrats, and so it makes him different from the pack. It serves that purpose even at the risk of alienating right-wing conservatives.”
But Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, was not so sure.
“The political payoff for either man does not seem impressively large,” he said. “It is hard to imagine that Christie’s association with Obama can do him much good in the eyes of the Republican Party as it is presently constituted. As for the president, it seems to be in keeping with the traditional role as national mourner, empathizer and consoler. All of these show him off well as someone not in it for electoral advantage.
“On the whole,” Baker added, Tuesday was “a nice photo-op for both men.”
Christie is up for reelection to a second term in the Democratic-leaning state in November. Most polling shows him with an advantage of around 30 points over his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbra Buono, however. Higher-profile Democrats, notably Newark Mayor Cory Booker, passed on the race.
--This report was updated at 8:02 p.m.