MANCHESTER, N.H. — Looking to reinforce the image of an unvarnished truth-teller from outside Washington, potential presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie rolled out an entitlement restructuring blueprint Tuesday that he said would save more than $1 trillion over 10 years.
Insisting that "leaders in Washington are not telling people the truth," Christie said that wealthier older Americans should receive reduced benefits, a sweeping systemic change that he said would salvage the country from "long-term decline."
Speaking at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, with students seated behind him, Christie said, "We need to tell the truth to the very people that some of us aspire to lead." His speech kicked off three nonconsecutive days of touring the Granite State, host of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Christie proposed imposing means testing on Social Security by trimming benefits for seniors earning $80,000 and above, and eliminating the retirement payouts for single seniors earning $200,000 and more. The retirement age would climb to 69, and the early-retirement age would rise to 64 from the current 62.
He said he would also raise the Medicare retirement age and expand the system that requires more affluent seniors to pay more for care, known as "means testing."
On Medicaid, the two-term governor called for a system under which the federal government sends states fixed amounts based on the number of enrollees, with flexibility for different types of enrollees, kept under a cap allowed to grow with inflation.
Christie's foray into New Hampshire comes as he seeks to reboot 2016 prospects that once looked rosy, but have been largely dimmed by home-state woes, including the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal.
Asked after his speech whether he was considering a White House run, Christie told reporters, "Yeah, I'm thinking about it." He said his decision would probably come in the late spring or early summer.
Christie's first town hall meeting outside his home state is scheduled for Wednesday, and his sustained New Hampshire tour has drawn a crush of Garden State, regional, and national media attention.
"I think he did a good job this morning, I liked what I heard, but he's one of many coming through the state," said JP Marzullo, a former state GOP vice chairman.
Addressing entitlements provides Christie with weighty subject matter and a clear line of attack on President Obama, who along with Congress has sought but failed to produce a "grand bargain" that would set the programs on a path to long-term sustainability.
On Tuesday, Christie ripped Obama for rendering the United States a "debtor nation."
The subject also allows Christie to capitalize on his status as a governor, distanced from Beltway grappling over long-range dilemmas. Several of the other declared or probable presidential contenders carry Washington-heavy résumés, while Christie referred repeatedly to his work in Trenton.
"It's only when governors and presidents and concerned citizens like you decide to step up and take action that we can really solve our problems," Christie said.
He brushed off early primary polls consistently showing him lagging behind other Republicans. "They're all over the place," he said of the polls, during a scrum with reporters outside Caesario's Pizza in downtown Manchester. "And it's because I speak my mind, and so, you know, people who may think they know and understand me today, they have a completely different impression six months from now."
He also took issue with the perception that he is an ideological moderate. "I'm a northeastern Republican who's a little ethnic, so people assume you're a moderate. Look at the record, I have a pretty conservative record," Christie said.
During his stop at the pizza shop, a jacketless Christie, accompanied by his wife, Mary Pat, was engaged over his entitlements plan by Kath Allen, a former Democratic legislative candidate and a Social Security and Medicare activist.
Allen said she was concerned by some elements of Christie's proposal, but thanked him for addressing the issues.
Christie also stopped at the front of a nearly block-long line outside a Manchester Ben & Jerry's, offering free cones on an unseasonably warm afternoon. The governor, who has dropped a significant amount of weight in recent years, refrained from the ice cream, and instead chatted about drug crime sentencing with a Manchester man.
C.J. Foote, who called himself a recovering heroin addict and referred to drug use as the "Black Plague of our generation," said he was pleased with Christie's response, which he said emphasized treatment rather than prison time for first-time offenders.
At the Stone Church bar in Newmarket, Christie spoke briefly to and mingled with a gathering organized by the Rockingham County Republican Committee. Before abandoning the stage and microphone for a series of one-on-one conversations, Christie promised that, if he ran, he would provide "direct, blunt talk to people who need to hear it."
Christie has a busy New Hampshire schedule this week, with stops in Manchester, Newmarket, and Portsmouth on Tuesday, along with a sit-down with the editorial board of the Union Leader newspaper. Also on Christie's schedule are visits to Manchester and Londonderry on Wednesday; then a conference of top national Republicans in Nashua and a town hall meeting in Exeter on Friday.
Sandwiched in between is a trip home and a town hall in New Jersey.
Jim O'Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.