In a year as governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie has captivated conservatives with an in-your-face frankness and nonstop aggressiveness that few have seen from a chief executive.
Last week, his swaggering talk — about tackling the really big problems, taming unions and cutting a ballooning deficit without raising taxes — earned him a hero’s welcome in Washington.
But while it is clear that Christie, 48, a Republican, has upended the status quo, putting powerful interest groups on the defensive and all but having his way with a Democratic-controlled Legislature, the challenges of the coming year could cinch his reputation as a political superstar — or puncture it.
Without question, Christie, who will propose his budget Tuesday, has torn into the financial problems he faced with gusto. He has cut spending, limited taxes, forced government workers to give more and get less, and insisted on legislative reforms that could put the state on a firmer footing.
“People have heard the tough talk, but they haven’t felt the full effect of what he’s done,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
From the moment he took over, Christie has flexed more of the muscle of New Jersey’s famously strong governorship than any recent occupant. When the teachers’ union resisted his demands for a wage freeze, he persuaded voters to defeat hundreds of school budgets. And he got nearly everything he wanted in last year’s budget negotiations, making the deepest cuts in generations.
Christie’s record has not been unblemished. He botched an application for $400 million in federal education money at a time when he was cutting twice that amount.
And in December, Christie was at Disney World during a blizzard that paralyzed the state. He refused to apologize, saying he had kept in touch with the acting governor, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, but Sweeney said they never spoke.
Where his poll numbers head now may depend on whether Christie can begin to show success in solving seemingly intractable problems before voters start to hold him responsible.
“When you cut billions of dollars from local government, you can’t turn around and say, ‘It’s the mayor’s fault’ — you’re the one who did it,” Sweeney said. “In Chris Christie’s New Jersey, class sizes are going up, and crime is going through the roof in our inner cities. Eventually, people are going to realize, ‘I’m paying a lot more now, and I have a lot less.’ The people have not realized it yet. But he’s the governor, and the music’s going to stop.”