If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie jumps into the Republican presidential primary in the next few weeks, then you can consider this column retracted. But until then, think of the former U.S. attorney and popular current first-term governor as a glorified Sarah Palin — because he’s been ramping up his attacks against President Barack Obama while sitting safely on the sidelines.

Although Christie and Palin differ in style, substance, and only one — Christie — has a realistic shot at being elected, they have one thing in common: they’ve both toyed with their supporters’ emotions while contemplating running for president, soaking up the political spotlight but stopping just short of offering their own leadership to help solve the country’s problems.

They’re both making a deliberate choice to reap the benefits of political notoriety without asking to be held accountable for finding political solutions.

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Christie supporters would certainly argue that there’s a world of difference between their guy, who’s a sitting governor, and Palin, who quit in her first term. They’d also point to polls showing that Christie would be a formidable candidate against other GOP challengers and against Obama.

And they’d be right. But they’d have to admit that Christie has relished lobbing accusations at Obama without answering debate questions, facing voters on the campaign trail, or having to back up any of his talk with action. Just like Palin.

Like the way he did Tuesday at the Reagan library:

In a speech titled “Real American Exceptionalism,” Christie went on an extended riff about why Ronald Reagan understood it and how Obama doesn’t. But instead of offering any specific criticism of any specific Obama policy — foreign or domestic — Christie was content to offer the upscale version of Palin’s famous “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya’?” refrain.

Christie charged that “we continue to wait and hope that our president will finally stop being a
bystander in the Oval Office” — even though Obama hunted down Osama bin Laden, bailed out the U.S. auto industry, extended Bush-era tax cuts, repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” tripled the number of women on the Supreme Court, negotiated the BP oil spill settlement, imposed sanctions on Iran, and nursed the Dow Jones back from 7,000 to 11,000 over the past three years.
Meanwhile, Christie reached back more than a quarter-century to praise President Reagan because he “attacked a Libya that supported terror” — even though it was an Obama-led coalition that ousted Muammar Gadhafi just a few weeks ago.

And then, after quoting liberally from Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Christie asked, “What happened to State Senator Obama? When did he decide to become one of the ‘dividers’ he spoke of so eloquently in 2004?” This, in spite of the fact that after having his American citizenship questioned for the first two years of his presidency, Obama has seldom had an unkind word to say about anyone other than a few “fat cats” who he blames for the financial crisis that hung over the country when he took office.

With a captive audience and a golden opportunity to lay out specifically what he would do to address sagging home prices and high unemployment, Christie took a pass, making sure to check off the usual points about “solving our long-term debt and deficit” problem, then spent the rest of his time recapping what Reagan did in a different era, and offering bromides like “The argument for getting our own house in order is not an argument for turning our back on the world.”

Gee, thanks. Good to know.

And it’s because it’s a luxury Christie still has. Say what you want about lukewarm former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, mercilessly lampooned debate loser, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, or even Obama — whose poll numbers are sagging. At least they’re all fighting it out in the arena.

Not Christie, though. Not yet, anyway. He’s a burly, take-charge guy — a New Jersey “Papa Grizzly” — who’d be a tough general election challenge for the reedy, pensive Obama. Heck, even Democrats liked it when Christie ordered slow-moving vacationers to “get the hell off the beach” before Hurricane Irene hit. Like Palin a year ago, he’s got a chance to be president.

But it’s easy to heckle from the cheap seats. Until he puts his name and political game in the presidential race, he hasn’t really said anything.

If he doesn’t think so, he should just ask Palin.

David Swerdlick’s writing has appeared in the New York Daily News, the American Prospect, and NPR.com. Follow him on Twitter