Is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Presidential Material?

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Written by Dean Baker   
Wednesday, 16 February 2011 15:00

POLITICO's blog, The Arena, recently asked: In a Wednesday afternoon speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for raising the retirement age on Social Security. His willingness to tackle politically delicate entitlement programs follows his approach in New Jersey of taking on teachers’ unions and other groups.

Can Christie portray himself as a teller of difficult truths and become a credible White House candidate in 2012 or 2016? Or will his YouTube-friendly shtick soon wear thin and render him largely irrelevant in Democratic-leaning New Jersey?

The fact that Gov. Christie is willing to do whatever Wall Street and the elite media tell him does not suggest that he has strong leadership qualities. If he had strong leadership qualities, he might take a moment to look at the Social Security trustees report himself, or at least talk to someone who had.

He would discover that the program can pay 100 percent of all scheduled benefits through the year 2037 and nearly 80 percent of scheduled benefits after this date for the indefinite future. After 2037 retirees would always get a larger benefit than current retirees even if Congress never does anything.

If Mr. Christie did the sort of basic research that we would expect from someone proposing to raise the retirement age he would discover that nearly half of older workers work in physically demanding jobs. It will be difficult for these people to stay in these positions well into their sixties. The share of non-college grads in physically demanding jobs is close to 60 percent.

He would also discover that that there has been relatively little increase in life expectancy for workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution, so further increases in the retirement age (we just raised it from 65 to 67) would likely mean a shorter period of retirement for low and moderate income workers.

Christie would also discover that most middle income workers have almost nothing besides Social Security to support themselves in retirement. This is due to the fact that they don't have traditional pensions, never accumulated much money in 401(k)s and just saw much of their home equity disappear with the collapse of the housing bubble.

Unfortunately Mr. Christie shows little interest in learning about Social Security, the country's most important safety net program. He just wants to do what the Washington Post tells him. That probably means he is electable, but that doesn't suggest he will be a very good president.