Christie, Obama, and the Refugee Debate
In an interview with conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt, presidential candidate Chris Christie expressed his opposition to accepting Syrian refugees at this time:
HEWITT: So let me ask you directly on two issues. The Syrian refugee policy, what would Chris Christie’s policy be vis-à-vis, you know, there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians who would love to come to this United States. The President says let’s bring in 10,000. I’m not sure what your policy is. What is it, Chris Christie?
CHRISTIE: I do not trust this administration to effectively vet the people who are proposed to be coming in, in order to protect the safety and security of the American people, so I would not permit them in.
HEWITT: What if they were orphans under the age of five?
CHRISTIE: You know, Hugh, we can come up with 18 different scenarios. The fact is that we need appropriate vetting, and I don’t think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point. But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks? The fact is you can come up with a number of different scenarios, Hugh. But in the end, I don’t trust this administration to effectively vet the people that they’re asking us to take in. We need to put the safety and security of the American people first.
One read of this is that Christie, in a desperate attempt for public attention while running for president in a crowded primary field, is playing on people’s worst fears. Yet part of what made Christie his name was his refusal to play to xenophobia. For example, Christie reacted angrily to criticism about his Muslim nominee for a Superior Court judgeship in New Jersey. A video of his response is below:
In that instance, Christie slammed the very people he would be rhetorically courting during the current crisis. So, what gives?
An historian might ask if we are looking at a situation of continuity or change here. Did Christie switch for political gain, or is there a broader theme that connects his actions? My contention is that continuity, rather than change, is more relevant here.
Last fall, a critic of Christie described Christie’s default political stance as “instinctive pugilistic communitarianism.” This is an apt description of what Christie tries to do in political controversies: He seeks to act as the “protector” of the American people, placing himself between them and whatever he deems to be a threat.
Such a position can be starkly opposed to discrimination, provided that your vision of America is sufficiently inclusive. To Christie, Sohail Mohammed was as American as anyone else. An attack on Sohail Mohammed was an attack on broader America. On that occasion, the “threat” to the community was the “crazies” who were up in arms about “sharia law” in America. Those critics “disgusted” him. Christie was “happy that [Mohammed] was willing to serve after all of this baloney.”
Note that Christie uses this same frame in his constant battles with the teacher’s unions. To Christie, individual teachers can be good and decent, but the unions, in not putting children first, are opposed to a primary interest of the whole community. This was the same frame, as the New Yorker article described, that governed Christie’s decision-making on Ebola and Kaci Hickox.
In relation to the refugee debate, to Christie, the threat to broader America – the threat that the pugilistic communitarian must oppose – is twofold: Militants attempting to sneak into America by exploiting the refugee program, and the irresponsible presidency of President Obama. The two work hand in hand: to Christie, the former is a threat because of the latter. Christie is saying that he has no faith in the Obama administration, which is living in a “fantasy land.” This fits in with his broad campaign theme. If Marco Rubio is focused like a laser on how American institutions are outdated, and Obama has not helped on the issue, Chris Christie is focused on “leadership” and how Obama lacks it.
Christie’s more specific point on “orphans” seems to me to be more focused on logistics than security. Do you put those kids into foster homes? How does that actually work on the ground? Listening stories from foster parents, we wouldn’t be sure. If there is a significant policy error in Christie’s remarks, it would be in the broader hesitation to allow refugees in, not the small segment of his remarks that the media and a segment of the public seized on. But much like Carly Fiorina on Planned Parenthood, Christie is answering the question he wants to answer, which is about his lack of “trust” in the administration, and it feeds back into the security question. Following an orientation towards the world established years ago, Christie is prioritizing the safety and security of the in-group (America) over the out-group (refugees). And he is doing it without apology.
Part of why Christie can approach the issue in this way is the divisiveness of Obama’s response. Obama received the following question at a press conference in Turkey:
These terrorist attacks we’ve seen allegedly have been attacks under the name of Islam. But this really takes – or upsets the peaceful people like countries like Turkey. So how can we give off that (inaudible) this is not really representative of Muslims?
Obama decided that it was important, in the context of this question, to address the commentary on refugees. He could have done so charitably, saying something like this:
I believe, strongly, that the United States has a responsibility to take on refugees. “Give us your tired, your poor” is not merely an engraving on an old green statue: It’s part of who we are. And I think that it is the best of America that we do so.
Now, I have heard from numerous governors – many of whom do not agree with me politically – that they are not interested in accepting refugees into their states until they get firmer assurances on the vetting of these refugees. We’ve heard rumors that at least one of the Paris attackers came into Europe disguised as a refugee, so I certainly understand their concerns. What I can say is that we are working very hard to ensure our vetting processes are up to this challenge. Indeed, I suspended a refugee program in 2011 because of my administration’s concerns about security threats, so this is not new to me. We addressed those concerns and moved forward. We constantly review our policies and procedures, and we will do our best to make sure that this program is handled responsibly.
With all of that said: in the end, we have an obligation to help these people. We will do so with our military efforts in Syria and Iraq, and we will do our best to do so by allowing as many refugees into the United States as we can process securely.
My clumsy rewrite of Obama’s remarks is meant to be inclusive: It acknowledges the threat, it respects the concerns of his opponents, it puts him on the level of the governors by acknowledging a tangible time where the Obama Administration did something similar to what the governors want, and it offers some assurances. Instead, Obama went for the reflexive partisan critique:
And when I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited [sic] from protection when they were fleeing political persecution – that’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.
One wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that Obama sounded more animated about his Republican opponents than the terrorist attack. (I don’t think this is reflective of his actual beliefs.) Obama may think that Republicans “deserve” this harsh rhetoric because of their constant obstructionism. That’s his right. But he should at least try to be better while overseas. And this will convince no one. It only serves to mobilize his die-hard supporters against his opponents.
Agreeing to a temporary pause while re-examining the program would neutralize the opposition. In the long term, he would get the policy outcome he wanted, without much harm. Instead, he’s getting a genuinely bipartisan effort in the House against his agenda. (This has included Congressional liberals, too, a fact that implies to me that the concerns raised by some of Obama’s Republican critics are genuine.)
What is genuinely frustrating to me, personally, is that I want the US to take on refugees from Syria, but Obama’s ham-handedness enables critics, rather than neutralizing them. Too often it seems that Obama has already begun his “post-presidency,” delivering speeches to adoring audiences about global citizenship and peacemaking and nuclear freezes and retrograde conservatives and whatever else he chooses to focus on, but today he is still the president of all Americans, and he should act like it.
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