WASHINGTON — When then-Vice President Joe Biden was weighing a 2016 presidential run, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provided him with a sounding board, telling Biden about his father Mario’s regrets about not running for the White House.
When Cuomo faced a challenge from progressive activist and actress Cynthia Nixon, it was Biden who delivered a more than 45-minute speech endorsing Cuomo at the state’s 2018 Democratic convention.
Biden and Cuomo have shared a long political friendship, but that alliance has been strained as Biden and White House officials continue to field questions about the controversies surrounding Cuomo, including allegations of sexual harassment, a federal inquiry into his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic and most recently, reports that Cuomo gave his relatives and VIPs preferential access to COVID-19 tests during the early days of the pandemic.
"The president doesn't want to be distracted by what's happening in New York State; he wants to focus on the things he's trying to do that in his view will help the country," said Bob Shrum, director of the University of Southern California Center for the Political Future and a longtime political strategist who has worked for Biden.
Biden, when first asked directly about the calls for Cuomo to resign, offered a brief response to pool reporters at the White House on March 14: "I think the investigation is underway and we should see what it brings us."
Two days later, in a sit-down interview with George Stephanopoulos, Biden took his response further, saying Cuomo should resign if state Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation confirms the sexual harassment allegations. Biden also raised the prospect of the governor facing criminal charges.
"It may very well be there could be a criminal prosecution that is attached to it. I just don't know," Biden said. "But I start with the presumption it takes a lot of courage for a woman to come forward … so the presumption is it should be taken seriously, and it should be investigated, and that's what's underway now."
Cuomo has denied the allegations from multiple women, including former aides Charlotte Bennett, Lindsey Boylan and Ana Liss, and has described some of his alleged advances as "unintentional" and "my way of doing friendly banter."
Biden himself as a presidential candidate faced scrutiny over his interaction with women after a former Nevada lawmaker said she felt "uncomfortable" when Biden kissed her on the back of her head at a Democratic event. Biden apologized, saying he never intended to make her feel uncomfortable and would "listen respectfully" to the complaints posed by women.
The president has always cast himself as a champion of abuse victims, citing his work spearheading the Violence Against Women Act during his time in the Senate. The act, passed by Congress in 1994, established stricter penalties for repeat sex offenders and toughened domestic violence laws.
Brad Bannon, a Democratic campaign strategist based in Washington, said that while Biden has largely played it safe by calling for the investigations of Cuomo to play out, if the harassment allegations are substantiated by investigators, "there’s going to be more pressure on Biden to take a strong stance" against the governor.
"Let's face it, women are a big part of the part of the Democratic Party's constituency and Joe Biden's constituency," Bannon said. "He won because there's a strong support that he had with women, and if the accusations against Cuomo continue, there's going to be more pressure on Biden."
Biden won 57% of the women's vote against former President Donald Trump, according to exit polls.
Erica Vladimir, co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a group formed in Albany to advocate on behalf of victims, said she believes Biden has not outright demanded Cuomo’s resignation as have other New York Democratic lawmakers because he hasn’t had the opportunity to be "presented the full facts."
"If President Biden truly believes in what he said, that a woman should be presumed to be telling the truth and should not be scapegoated and become victimized by her coming forward, the fact that Governor Cuomo has done exactly that shows on a political level, that he does not deserve the privilege of holding the highest office in our state," Vladimir said. "President Biden, I would assume, would agree with, as a result of that, [Cuomo] should resign."
Shrum, who got his start in politics as a speechwriter for the late New York City Mayor John Lindsay and worked on the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Al Gore, said that while Cuomo’s troubles may have created an unwanted distraction for the White House, in the long run the governor’s issues won’t cause a major dent in Biden’s standing among Democrats.
"They’ve obviously known each other for a long time … but I don’t think that they are tied together in voters' minds in any way shape or form," Shrum said. "I think Biden has very much a distinct image of his own. … At the end of the day I don't think that there's any evidence that voters somehow or other hold Joe Biden accountable for whatever they think about Andrew Cuomo."
Shrum said Biden, as leader of the Democratic Party, will likely continue to await the outcome of the investigation before deciding whether to get involved in recommending whether or not Cuomo should seek a fourth term in office.
"I think that Cuomo has been sufficiently damaged that short of a complete exoneration it would be very difficult for him to run for another term," Shrum said. "I mean he's got not only the sexual harassment allegations, but the nursing home allegations, and these new revelations about COVID testing and preferential treatment for his family. I think that's a pretty heavy load of baggage to carry into a reelection campaign."
A Quinnipiac Poll released last week found nearly half of those surveyed — 49% — believe Cuomo should not resign, but the same poll found that 66% of respondents said he shouldn’t run for reelection.
"Though some of his fellow Democrats are clearly ready to usher him out the door of the Executive Mansion and point him toward the Thruway, the vast majority of the party sees a next step as necessary," said Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy. "They want a full investigation before deciding whether Cuomo should resign."
In Biden’s 2017 memoir "Promise me, Dad," he recounts that Cuomo "reminded me of Beau," his son who died in May 2015 of brain cancer. Cuomo and Beau Biden were both elected attorneys general of their respective home states in 2006 and both often spoke about their shared experiences as the scions of two prominent politicians.
"They had worked together and become friends," Biden wrote. "Andrew told me he and Beau used to commiserate about being aspiring politicians who were also the sons of well-known officeholders. They were both proud of us, proud to be our sons, but they agreed it made it hard to cut their own path."