The Magazine

The Mystery of
Michael Bloomberg

Why does a popular but mediocre mayor think he should run for president?

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By FRED SIEGEL and MICHAEL GOODWIN
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New York

There is a stunning disconnect between Michael Bloomberg's modest accomplishments as mayor of New York and his elevation to a figure worthy of presidential consideration--albeit as an independent candidate. In Bloomberg's own words, "How likely is a 5′7″-Jew-from-New-York billionaire who's divorced and running as an independent to become president of the United States?"

The answer is obvious, but that doesn't mean Bloomberg and his billions couldn't become a major force in national politics. Or that he doesn't have a plan that would, under the right conditions, put him in the Oval Office. His plan, he tells confidants, is to spend upwards of $500 million of his own money--about twice as much as the major party nominees--on TV ads and get-out-the-vote efforts, a strategy that's worked for him twice in New York. The only catch is that he first wants to see who Democrats and Republicans nominate. If the parties put up fringe-leaning nominees, leaving the middle open, Bloomberg would use his moneybags to try to create a centrist path to victory.

Meanwhile, the outlines of his platform are clearly visible. He's been zigzagging across the country, including in some primary states, leading the charge for handgun control, public health reform, and his "reformist" educational policies. Think of a sane George Soros.

The Washington Post has featured his presidential possibilities on its front page; Slate has touted him as a great manager; the New York Times, New York magazine, and the New York Sun are enthusiastic about a Bloomberg run; Rupert Murdoch was quoted as saying the mayor "would be my choice" for president, while savvy consultants are mapping out the scenarios that would give him a chance. In a mixed omen, Al Sharpton, warm to a Bloomberg candidacy, has described him as "Ross Perot with a résumé." It's quite an array.

Looming behind the disjuncture between his managerial failures as mayor and the presidential palaver is the mystery of how a mayor so emotionally detached from the lives of most New Yorkers, so aggressively aloof from the supposedly populist sentiments of New York politics, can be riding so high in the local polls. Even after a rough first quarter in this, his sixth year in office, his job approval ratings generally hit 70 percent.

True, his low-key personality was a relief to many New Yorkers after Rudy Giuliani's brawling. But his passionless, matter-of-fact approach to the job stands in stark contrast to the from-the-gut styles of the two most recent successful and popular mayors, Ed Koch and Giuliani. Indeed, Bloomberg's style is closer to that of failures Abe Beame and David Dinkins. Of Koch, who led the city out of the 1970s fiscal crisis, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "History will record [him] as having given back New York City its morale." Rudy beat down the twin scourges of crime and soaring welfare dependency. After almost a term and a half, it is still impossible to credit Bloomberg with a transformative achievement or discern any legacy.

Bloomberg's reputation is built on the idea that he's not just another politician but an apolitical manager who rises above petty interests. But this image reverses the reality. Bloomberg's failures have been managerial, while he's been a brilliant success politically by catering--via the city treasury and his own fortune--to those petty interests.

Bloomberg's greatest substantive achievement is to have successfully continued Giuliani's reforms regarding crime and welfare. He has also continued Giuliani's aggressive pro-development policies that, combined with the recent economic boom, have led to a record number of housing starts and an unemployment rate that is the lowest in 30 years. But where he has struck out on his own, it has been a different matter.

"Manager Mike," the first mayor to also be the city's wealthiest man, put education at the center of his 2001 run for mayor. Beginning with his first campaign speech, he pledged "to do for education what Giuliani did for public safety." He invited people to judge him on the issue and said he wanted to be the "education mayor." Based in part on that promise of accountability, Bloomberg was given unprecedented mayoral control of the schools, which had been in the hands of a fractious and unaccountable Board of Education.

He has done a marvelous job of selling himself as a model school reformer to the New York press, to the New York elites, and to mayors across the country. Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., have spoken of Bloomberg as their model, "the standard-bearer for educational reform."