- Chris Christie struck a defiant tone in responding to Ebola
- Christie's response shows the tone that will be on display if he runs for president
President Barack Obama hit back at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over Ebola on Tuesday, warning that quarantine policies based on fear could discourage US health care workers "doing God's work" in Africa to battle the epidemic.
Obama issued a veiled but clear public rebuke to the tough-talking Republican who strode back onto the national stage in a tussle with the White House on Friday after ordering the isolation of a nurse who had just landed at Newark from Sierra Leone.
The president warned that health workers who do a "really tough job" in Africa should be applauded, supported and monitored in a prudent fashion once they come back home. He said anti-Ebola precautions should be based on science not "on our fears."
The public disagreement marked the latest twist in the odd couple relationship between the cool, no drama president and the no-nonsense governor, who bonded two years ago after Hurricane Sandy. Widening disagreements are likely if Christie decides to run for president in 2016.
Christie justified his decision to contradict federal Ebola procedures by quarantining the nurse, Kaci Hickox by saying that the inconveniencing of one person was outweighed by wider concerns for public safety. But the confinement of Hickox, who exhibited no symptoms of Ebola, stirred a public relations mess for the governor and on Monday he relented and allowed her to return home to Maine for monitoring.
Another governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York also climbed down on tough new quarantine rules under pressure from the White House.
But Christie remained defiant on Tuesday, saying he had no regrets over how the drama had unfolded in his state.
The Ebola episode offers another example of challenges Christie faces as the Republican governor of a Democratic state with his eyes on the White House. He has to avoid alienating conservative primary voters -- many of whom are still bitter about Christie's embrace of President Barack Obama days before the 2012 election after Hurricane Sandy ravaged his state. But he can't hew so close to the conservative line that he upends his image as a straight-talker willing to take on both parties.
That dynamic was on display Monday after Hickox was released. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Christie himself should be quarantined after again lining up with Obama on a key issue shortly before a critical election.
"Obama and his gang are flipping out.... so one week before the election, once again Gov. Chris Christie has caved," Limbaugh said. "We need to quarantine Chris Christie, is what we need to happen here folks."
Still, the White House that was once so eager to embrace Christie's post-Sandy bear hug of Obama's leadership is now rebuking the state's the treatment of Hickox, saying medical staff returning home must not be stigmatized.
"Her service and commitment to this cause is something that should be honored and respected. I don't think we should do that by making her live in a tent for two or three days," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.
The jab was a reflection of how the political circumstances of both Christie and Obama have changed since their interactions in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Back then, with Christie seeking a thumping re-election win to set up a 2016 run, and keen for federal relief cash, he had sound political reasons to offer Obama a disaster photo-op — much to the fury of Mitt Romney's supporters.
Now, with Christie seeking a national stage, polishing his reputation after the Bridgegate scandal, and keen to capitalize on Republican claims Obama is incompetent, it makes sense to stand firm on Ebola.
The White House noticed the shifting dynamic from a politician who now has more incentive to confront Obama than to embrace him.
A senior administration official told CNN on Sunday that the White House told Christie and Cuomo it was concerned with "the unintended consequences of policies that are not grounded in science may have on efforts to combat Ebola at its source in West Africa."
The saga reveals two sides of Chris Christie — likely to be vying for prominence if he decides next year to run for president in a campaign that will likely contrast his abrasive style of management with the cool, 'no drama' persona adopted by Obama, which critics see as evidence of disengagement.
"What I think Christie did here was he managed once again, just like Hurricane Sandy, to reassert himself as a very strong and powerful leader, someone who will seize the bull by the horns," said Brigid Harrison, an analyst who has watched the governor's fast rising career from Montclair State University.
In standing up to federal health authorities, Christie assumed leadership of those suspicious of Washington officials who insist their risk to Americans from Ebola is miniscule.
"Being an undeclared candidate in a hotly contested primary ... Christie's calling card is going to be that bold leadership — and he is going to show it time and time again," said Jonathan Jaffe, a public affairs consultant who runs a daily newsletter on New Jersey politics.