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

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