When President Barack Obama comes to New York on Tuesday as the leader of the free world, he will immediately become the second most popular Democrat in the state, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Make that third most popular, after Obama’s secretary of state, former New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Or perhaps fourth, after former President Bill Clinton, who has an office in New York City. He was Cuomo’s mentor from his years as federal housing secretary and got an important early boost for his first presidential run 20 years ago from the endorsement by Andrew’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Obama, Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton depend on, and sometimes compete against, one another. And people around the two New Yorkers are talking up 2016 presidential runs, though neither politician will deny or confirm plans.
So there is sure to be plenty of focus on Obama’s visit to a computer chip plant north of Albany. The governor will be there and the chemistry between the two inevitably will be scrutinized.
Obama can use Cuomo’s entree to New York’s big political donors. Sidling alongside Cuomo also gives the president some of the shine Cuomo has cloaked himself in as a fiscal conservative. Cuomo cut spending, used a $2 billion tax on millionaires in part to fund tax breaks of $200 to $400 for the middle class, and made “jobs, jobs, jobs” his top priority.
An upstate New York appearance and planned economic speech also gives Obama a chance to try out ways to appeal to Catholics and voters in the Midwest who share a certain political and economic DNA with upstate New Yorkers.
“It’s a way for him to get the message out, sitting next to a popular governor,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a national political adviser who worked in the Clinton White House. “Obama has got to win some combination of Midwestern states.”
For Cuomo, it’s another way to be seen as presidential without talking about it himself and thereby risking the kind of speculation that ultimately damaged his father, who was dubbed “Hamlet on the Hudson” for perceived indecision about whether to run.
“It absolutely tells people that Gov. Cuomo matters in a state that doesn’t usually matter for a Democratic president,” Sheinkopf said. “It’s a big coup for Andrew Cuomo.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Clinton, with a home five miles south of Cuomo’s in suburban Westchester County, keeps amassing foreign relations cred and global popularity impossible to gain from Albany. Last week, a New York Daily news poll found 400 New York City Democrats questioned would pick Clinton over Cuomo, 60 to 25 percent, in a presidential primary matchup.
Asked to respond, Cuomo said: “Nope.”
Few things keep presidential chatter alive more than a politician repeatedly refusing to discuss it.
Yet Cuomo frequently brings up his Washington experience — saying in some ways it was more difficult than governor — and criticizes the gridlock that defined Albany in the years before he was elected. Cuomo’s immediate and strong alliance with the Senate’s Republican majority has helped ease the partisan bottleneck in New York’s capital.
“This presidential appearance proves by inference what is wrong in Washington, by showing what is right in Albany,” said Bruce Gyory, consultant to governors and a political science professor at the University at Albany. “Cuomo is a prized commodity for President Obama. The governor has correctly not frittered away his political capital in New York state by being partisan.”
But what exactly is that relationship between Cuomo and Obama?
“The governor has a strong personal and professional relationship with the president and will do anything he is asked in order to support his re-election,” Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said Friday.
“Both men share a desire to cut through political gridlock and get things done,” said Michael Benjamin, a former Bronx assemblyman and now a good-government advocate.
Beyond resumes, however, how the two men feel about each other is anyone’s guess.
Cuomo, for example, did little cheerleading when the president was low in the polls. Cuomo has since given some support to Obama and in April issued an executive order to bring New York into Obama’s health care plan, a boost for the president. But two weeks later, when asked if he was going to campaign for Obama, Cuomo said: “I haven’t thought about it yet.”
Tuesday may give more hints, although power politics is rarely subtle.
In Obama’s first visit to upstate New York in 2009, Obama joked like old pals with Cuomo, who was then attorney general. From the podium Obama called Cuomo “your shy and retiring attorney general” and the two men made warm eye contact that was analyzed for days afterward.
Obama then turned to the state’s first black and blind governor, David Paterson, who at that moment desperately needed a presidential shout-out on his executive skills, and doffed a simple “wonderful man” mention. Meanwhile an Obama aide told reporters away from the microphone that “the White House has concerns” about Paterson.
Message sent. Cuomo went on to become governor.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.