Learning From Bloomberg

Barack Obama is pretty well saturated in Massachusetts-related lessons by now. Here’s one, though, that he has probably missed: The president needs to be more, and less, like Mike.

Bloomberg, that is. The mayor left Massachusetts behind a long time ago (though his mother still lives in Medford, not far from Martha Coakley). Yet Bloomberg—who just months ago was begging Obama to stay away from Bill Thompson, a favor that proved crucial to the mayor’s narrow reelection win—now sounds as mad as the Bay State tea partyers. In December, Bloomberg blasted the Senate health-care bill as a “disgrace” that could force the closing of city clinics. On January 14, he invoked his favorite municipal bogeyman to attack Obama’s proposed tarp tax. “The way we pay our cops, firefighters, and everybody else in the city is from tax revenues,” Bloomberg said. “And if you want to see what happens to a city when their major industry fails, just take a look at Detroit.”

Bloomberg is, in some ways, playing parochial. He is fighting for the city’s businesses and its money against greedy Washington, just as Giuliani and Dinkins and Cadwallader Colden did before him. Bloomberg also believes he could be a more effective commander-in-chief than Obama or anyone else.

Nevertheless, he’s stuck at City Hall. The way he got there should have served as a lesson—not the extravagant campaign-spending part, but the fading-of-parties part. Last week’s Massachusetts results were a surprise only to people who still believe that party registration is decisive. Voters are free agents more than ever, making independents and “whatever it is, I’m against it” (Groucho) Marxists the dominant force in American politics. The way Bloomberg has done his job is instructive, too. The mayor has focused on government competence. Granted, picking up the trash is easier than righting a national economy, the City Council sure ain’t Congress, and Bloomberg has fared less well when he’s tried to get approval from Albany. But an emphasis on getting basic things done efficiently would serve Obama well.

There is, however, a more fundamental issue. Whatever the recent differences on policy, Bloomberg is, ideologically and temperamentally, Obama’s true base: He’s a fellow pragmatist-technocrat. And that’s a major problem. Both men pride themselves on making coolly rational decisions rooted in the merits of an idea. Carefully weighing options is a good thing, but a disconnection from the emotional reactions of the people who elected you is not. Bloomberg’s billions have enabled him to paper over his inability to emote on cue, but he’s also worked to improve his touch with New Yorkers outside his own tax bracket. The president would look blatantly phony if he suddenly became the empathizer-in-chief, but he needs to revive the 2008 hope-peddler who connected with as many guts as minds.

Sometime soon, Obama would be wise to cash in that political chit from last fall and enlist Bloomberg’s backing as the president tries to shift the conversation to economic recovery. Until then, however, the louder the mayor yells about the bank tax and risk restrictions, the better it is for the president’s newly populist tone. If Bloomberg wants to become the champion of Wall Street rich guys, the White House should gladly be on the other side of the fight.

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Learning From Bloomberg