Term-limited New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is at work expanding his national profile, delivering a string of high-profile candidate endorsements around the country and using his outsized megaphone to become a spokesman for swaths of disgruntled elites who were once part of President Barack Obama’s base.
What he wants isn’t entirely clear. The mayor, armed with a $15 billion fortune, publicly denies in the most emphatic terms—death, incapacitation—any interest in cutting short his third term to run for higher office.
But his schedule and growing portfolio suggests he's looking for a national voice or something more, one that echoes well beyond the city’s five boroughs, and he is attracting attention from elites who have become disillusioned with the White House.
His last time before the voters in 2009—which came after a controversial move to extend term limits—resulted in a surprisingly narrow five-percentage point win, even after spending a staggering $109 million.
Nevertheless, Bloomberg has pressed ahead with a coalition against illegal guns that he launched several years ago, started an immigration reform coalition of mayors and business leaders including Rupert Murdoch, and brought on three deputy mayors with either national political or government experience—Howard Wolfson, Robert Steel and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith.
He has endorsed both Republicans and Democrats in House and Senate races across the country the cycle, with an apolitical litmus test that depends on whether they fought for either his own city's interests or for the mayor’s own pet causes, such as gun restrictions or education reform.
Among those who have won the Bloomberg imprimatur—Democratic Senate hopeful Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania; Republican Rep. Mike Castle, a Delaware Senate candidate; Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful in Wisconsin; Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is seeking reelection.
Bloomberg is also throwing a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Sept. 20 in New York City, someone whom he's forged a friendship in the last few years and who he believes, according to sources familiar with his thinking, has been an ally for New York. In addition, Bloomberg is hosting a fundraiser for Michael Bennet, the Colorado Democratic senator whom the White House went to great lengths to protect during a recent primary challenge, and an event for Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican who has good relations with City Hall.
Regardless of his ultimate intentions, noted Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, "he certainly has shown an interest in the national stage since he's been mayor.”
Bloomberg offered public disavowals regarding his political future in 2008—even as his aides explored the possibility of an independent run and ballot access laws in depth—pulling the plug only when the nominees emerged. But some of his backers have never given up the idea, and see an opening in the current restive political environment.
At a minimum, the talk—combined with the billionaire’s ability to instantly plunge more money into advertising, mail and field operations than any major-party nominee (including the president) will likely be able to raise for 2012—makes him impossible to dismiss.
At the same time, Bloomberg has become something of a spokesman for swaths of elites who comprised President Obama's base in 2008 but have become disenchanted with him—ranging from Wall Streeters enraged by the new financial reform bill to liberals who support the ground zero-area mosque.
"Mike Bloomberg has become the political gold standard for governance, ethics and transparency. At a time when people have given up faith that government can do anything, Bloomberg has proven that government can actually work in the toughest city in America," said an admiring Mark McKinnon, a former George W. Bush senior adviser who declined to work against Obama in 2008.
"Bloomberg is seen as above of petty, partisan politics. He doesn’t care if it’s a Democrat or Republican idea, he just cares if it works."
That profile has made him an attractive vessel for elements of the president's base that have been crumbling: elites on both sides of the partisan divide, ranging from Big Business Democrats to immigration reform proponents to liberals who are enraged by the opposition to the mosque, and disappointed that few are speaking out in favor of it publicly.
"He can be giving voice to disaffected groups," agreed Sarah Kovner, a longtime New York-based Democratic donor who is supportive of Obama. "He's out there, and he does have a big megaphone."
Multiple sources say the White House is well aware of his ability to create headlines—some of which have been headaches for them over the past year, ranging from the mosque to the 9/11 terror suspect trials to health care reform—and have kept an eye on what he is up to.
"They see him as a loose piece on the board," said one New York Democratic official. "And one that they need to secure."
Bloomberg is speaking to "an elite segment of Obama's base that are disenchanted," said one prominent national Democrat, who asked not to be identified. "They don't like the class warfare (arguments)."
His potential appeal to business interests—ranging health care to finance—is at least part of the reason why President Obama invited him golfing on Martha's Vineyard nearly two weeks ago, and put out the message that they were discussing the economy. Several weeks earlier, Vice President Joe Biden asked for a private breakfast with the mayor while the VP vacationed on Long Island.
Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney's presidential run, said, "(Bloomberg) has something that Obama doesn't have, which is executive expertise. Obama's hold with independents, and his profile as an executive, hasn't been good, and I think they're hoping that some of that executive expertise that Bloomberg has might rub off."
A source familiar with White House thinking said the idea of appearing with Bloomberg was indeed about sending a signal to business.
"Bloomberg's respected on the economy," said the source. "And Bloomberg carrying the message back to people that, 'We don't hate Wall Street, we don't hate Big Business,' is helpful."
A report that the president and Bloomberg discussed a Treasury Secretary appointment for the mayor while golfing was dismissed by both sides, though is is still generating buzz in both the Big Apple and the Capitol.
Many of the president's supporters feel the mayor owes them a big debt after the 2009 mayoral race, when the White House took considerable heat for not doing more to assist Democrat Bill Thompson. But even the mayor's strongest supporters agree that Bloomberg's personality makes it unlikely that he will see that as a favor he needs repay.
In his autobiography over a decade ago, "Bloomberg by Bloomberg," the mayor listed the presidency and head of the World Bank as two of the three jobs he'd want (he currently holds the third one). While third-party candidacies are extremely difficult—and presidential politicking requires a level of retail talent that the mayor has never enjoyed—he is a self-funder who would already begin with a level of credibility.
Few expect him to actually make a run, in part because the risk of failure is high and the viability of a socially liberal, Jewish mayor from New York—something he himself points out frequently—is questionable.
And Elmendorf noted that Bloomberg's actual name recognition outside cable network-centric New York is probably "not as strong as he thinks it is."