Michael Bloomberg: New York's leading man

In a decade as Mayor, his calm confidence steadied a city recovering from 9/11. Does the US itself now need such a leader?

He will be there in the front row next Sunday, alongside his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani and the current and former American presidents, at the ceremony at Ground Zero to mark the 10th anniversary of the most dreadful day in his city's history.

But if truth be told, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the man not of 9/11, but of New York since 9/11.

Yes, those terrible events helped to put him in the job. The attacks happened on the very day of the scheduled 2001 mayoral primaries, in which Bloomberg, who had been a Democrat, was running as a Republican. The voting was postponed, and the subsequent election passed half unnoticed, lost amid the immense tragedy all around.

On 6 November 2001, however, Bloomberg won by a narrow margin – aided undoubtedly by his reputation as a builder of a mighty business when rebuilding was the order of the hour (and by the unprecedented $73m he spent out of his own pocket on his campaign). And the result made history in its own way: for the very first time, overwhelmingly Democratic New York had elected successive Republican mayors.

Giuliani and Bloomberg have elements in common, beyond their party allegiance. Both are economic conservatives but social liberals, pro-choice and in favour of gun control and gay rights. Neither is given to self-doubt; their characters are reflections of what is surely the most self-regarding city on earth. But in other ways they differ.

Physically, Giuliani is tall and stooped, where Bloomberg is short and compact. The former mayor tends to be brash and partisan; his successor has made non-partisanship an article of faith – of which more in a moment. Bloomberg can be petulant and short tempered, and unreasonably demanding, but he projects a calmness and crisp competence that Giuliani, with his fondness for drama, could never manage.

Next 1 January, Bloomberg will celebrate his own 10th anniversary in his job. During his first two terms, he seemed scarcely to put a foot wrong. Since 9/11, the city has resumed its upward trajectory. Crime rates have continued to fall; business has flourished, and even New York's legendarily expensive property market came through the Great Crash comparatively unscathed.

The place is more liveable too: Bloomberg is midway through a project to plant a million trees by 2017; pedestrian plazas have blossomed around Times Square, while bike paths have multiplied. Not least, after much initial feuding, a new World Trade Center site is taking concrete and impressive shape. The mayor, too, has been a driving force in ensuring that a $700m memorial and museum are now finally in place, where the Twin Towers stood.

Of late, it must be said, Bloomberg's touch has sometimes deserted him. He seemed to be caught napping by last winter's violent blizzards. (In America's northern cities, great and small, the supreme measure of a mayor is how quickly the snow is removed.) Last weekend, and doubtless to erase memories of that fall from grace, he arguably overreacted to the threat of by-then tropical storm Irene, which for New York City at least was no big deal at all.

The origins of the third term to which he was elected in November 2009 did not help either. Giuliani and his predecessors had been restricted to two terms, but Bloomberg persuaded the city council to extend the limit to three. Not by coincidence, his margin of victory shrank to barely four points, from 20 per cent in 2005, the biggest ever by a Republican mayor. New Yorkers too are wary of men who consider themselves irreplaceable.

More than anything though, Michael Bloomberg epitomises the changed priorities of both his city and his country. Not that he discounts the terrorist threat. He supports the oft-criticised Patriot Act passed by Congress in October 2001, and upon taking office he set up a Counterterrorism Bureau to work alongside the police and the FBI to collect information worldwide that might affect New York. But America has moved on. The memory of that sunny morning 10 years ago will for ever haunt it. Panic, though, has subsided; Americans, polls show, have developed a fatalism about the risk of new attacks. What matters today is not al-Qa'ida, but jobs and the wretched economy – and a political system sliding into dysfunction, amid a palpable sense of national decline. And this makes Bloomberg more relevant than ever.

The rest of the US is always uncomfortable with New York: too big, too brash, too liberal, too cosmopolitan. But as a metropolis that 35 years ago seemed in terminal decline (as in the immortal New York Daily News headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead" of 1975) recovered and prospers, many have wondered, why can't America heed the lesson? Why the incessant partisan paralysis of Washington? Why can't the country be run by someone who's not beholden to lobbyists and special interests, who's competent and open-minded – in short, by someone like Michael Bloomberg?

For a while in 2007, the notion of Bloomberg for president gained real currency. Many of the great and good came out in favour, and the man himself acknowledged he was giving the idea serious thought. But in early 2008 he said no, and that remains his position today.

Last December, in an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Bloomberg was Shermanesque in his denial: "I'm not going to run for president, and I'm not looking at the possibility of running ... no way, no how." Not surprisingly, as 2012 approaches, no one has been minting any "I Like Mike" buttons.

And the drawbacks to a Bloomberg candidacy are the same, perhaps greater, than four years ago. He's an unabashed New Yorker, Jewish and divorced. (He lives with the state's former banking superintendent Diana Taylor.) He would also be on the old side: almost 71 on Inauguration Day 2013, a year more even than Ronald Reagan when he entered office.

The realist in him, moreover, knows that running a country is not like running a business, an army, even a big city. A CEO or general can give orders with reasonable confidence they will be carried out. Not so in the messy trade of politics. Bloomberg is well aware his forte is not the schmoozing and 11th-hour horse-trading that is part of the tool kit of most successful presidents.

But the other ingredients for an independent run at the White House are still there: a record of non-ideological pragmatism, and a proven ability to get things done – including the building of the eponymous financial media powerhouse and an estimated $18bn fortune that makes him the 13th richest man in America.

And if the terrain was ever ripe for a major third candidate, it is now. Back in 1992, the erratic (to put it mildly) Ross Perot won 19 per cent of the vote, at a moment of good governance compared to today's debt ceiling fiasco and the Democrats' and Republicans' latest squabble over the timing of a presidential speech.

Who knows? If come next spring the Republicans seem hell-bent on nominating an unelectable right-wing ideologue, if Barack Obama continues to give his impression of a bumbling, semi-detached law professor, if Congress still resembles a sandpit full of children, the pressure for a new face could become overwhelming. Maybe not Michael Bloomberg, but someone very like him.

A life in brief

Born: 14 February 1942, Massachusetts.

Family: Two daughters with Susan Brown, divorced in 1993.

Education: Engineering degree from Johns Hopkins University and MBA from Harvard.

Career: Created the eponymous financial news service which made him a billionaire. Mayor of New York since 2002.

He says: "Every one of my positions cuts out half the country. I'm pro-choice. I'm pro-gay rights. I'm pro-immigration. I'm against guns. I believe in Darwin."

They say: "The political class always viewed Bloomberg's mayoralty as an anomaly rather than as a paradigm shift." Ben McGrath, The New Yorker

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices