It’s difficult to game out the significance of Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of Barack Obama — if there is any at all.
In his op-ed, Bloomberg cites the need for presidential leadership on climate change as a guiding factor in his decision. The first four paragraphs are given over to cataloging the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. “Our climate is changing,” Bloomberg writes. “While the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
And yet Obama’s record combating climate change is spotty. As Bloomberg notes, Obama “has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. His administration also has adopted tighter controls on mercury emissions, which will help to close the dirtiest coal power plants (an effort I have supported through my philanthropy), which are estimated to kill 13,000 Americans a year.”
But only one candidate in the race has actually signed a cap-and-trade agreement. That would be Mitt Romney, who helped create a regional cap-and-trade plan as governor of Massachusetts. The White House tried to thread a cap-and-trade deal through Congress, approaching one Republican Senator after another in an attempt to forge a bipartisan pact. But the efforts collapsed under special interest pressures amid the rise of the Tea Party. Having spent his political capital on healthcare, “on climate change Obama grew timid and gave up, leaving the dysfunctional Senate to figure out the issue on its own,” reporter Ryan Lizza concluded at the end of a long piece on the demise of cap-and-trade in 2010.
Bloomberg assails Romney for his hairpin turn on cap-and-trade, which mirrors his reversals on policy issues like abortion, gun control and health care. (All these issues are salient for the New York City mayor, who recently established his own super PAC and has begun doling out cash to congressional candidates from both parties who advocate for tighter gun laws, same-sex marriage and education reform.) But Bloomberg offers withering words for Obama as well, arguing his inability to stitch together a centrist coalition (in the face of an obstinate opposition that had no interest in participating) “doomed hope for any real progress on illegal guns, immigration, tax reform, job creation and deficit reduction.”
Perhaps Bloomberg is skeptical — and he has reason to be — that leadership on climate change could come from the contemporary Republican Party, which has nurtured a stubborn hostility to climate science. He suggests Obama is the more principled candidate, even if he has failed to live up to those principles during his first term. “One sees climate as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not,” he writes. “I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.”
Both sides assiduously courted Bloomberg’s endorsement, so it must have been a nice surprise for the President to win it. The mayor, a political independent, did not endorse in 2008, and had been expected to sit this election cycle out as well. Perhaps the backing of a prominent billionaire, like that of the free-marketeers at The Economist, will insulate Obama somewhat against the charges that he is hostile to private enterprise. But it’s hard to imagine which independents will be swayed by the opinion of a man whose politics — socially liberal, yet slavish in his devotion to the creative force of market capitalism — are unique New York. There is a reason that Bloomberg, the perennial third-party white knight, never actually jumps into the ring: he has no real constituency. Even the Washington Post, in a piece headlined “Why Bloomberg’s Endorsement of Obama Matters,” concedes that it probably doesn’t: “It’s hard to believe a billionaire New York City mayor, even an independent one, holds much influence on voters in Ohio or Colorado.”
Instead, the endorsement can best be read as an extension of Bloomberg’s own brand, the effort of a centrist trying to carve out a space between the two parties. In the wake of the hurricane that savaged the northeast, the mayor has an opportunity to revisit an issue that has slid from the nation’s consciousness. But if Bloomberg’s great hope is that presidential leadership will force legislative action on climate change over the next four years, he is likely to be disappointed. The Republican Party doesn’t just balk at the notion of a market-centered approach to curbing carbon emissions; the majority of its members have come to deny that man-made climate change is taking place at all.