The Siena Research Institute poll released Monday confirmed what many have been saying for the past two weeks: Andrew M. Cuomo, right now, is a hot commodity. Virtually, wherever you go, people want Cuomo for president — not in 2024, but today.
As a “Draft Cuomo 2020” account popped on Twitter, the governor has made it clear, most recently on his brother Chris’ news show, that he is not running for president. So, why is Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak creating such a political paradigm shift? What is the shelf-life of his dramatic rise in popularity? And, how long can it last, and where could it take him?
Americans are starving for leadership. The example set by President Donald Trump makes that hunger even more acute. All of a sudden, experience is no longer a bad word. The “establishment” is what is mobilizing to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. And, many voters have a newfound respect and appreciation for government. Say what you want about Cuomo, but he has spent his career as a part of that establishment, acquiring years of experience IN government.
This crisis hasn’t changed Cuomo. It has changed the public’s appetite for what Cuomo has always been: a strong, effective and competent leader. It seems that now, as happens in history from time to time, the man may have found his moment.
Eighty-seven percent of New Yorkers approve of Cuomo’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Seventy-one percent have an overall favorable impression of him. His popularity extends across all regions, religions, ethnicities, and age groups. Even an impressive 42% of Republicans favor him now. Popularity built on extraordinary leadership in times of crisis is not that unique. After the 9/11 attack, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s approval rating reached 79%. Then-President George W. Bush’s popularity peaked at 92% after the attack, and was a steady 80% to 90% for four months before it began to plummet.
The question is how sustainable is Cuomo’s popularity and is it deep enough to last to his next reelection in 2022 or the next presidential race in 2024? I would argue that Cuomo’s newfound popularity is much deeper than that of either Mayor Giuliani or President Bush.
For one, this crisis is much more personal to each and every citizen. As horrendous and consequential the 9/11 attack was on America, that is just what it was — an attack on our nation and our city. While it was extremely personal to those who lost loved ones, for society as a whole, for the most part, the physical threat did not hit every member of that society. Bush’s and Giuliani’s popularity after 9/11 was built on admiration and national pride.
In the 9/11 attack, our emotions were built around “us.” In this crisis, it’s much closer to home — it’s about “me and mine.” Whether it is the fear of getting ill or dying, the fear for the well-being of loved ones, or the fear of financial hardship, this threat is way more personal. Many people trust that Cuomo will get them through and out of this ordeal, safe and secure. His popularity is built on that trust — a much deeper, enduring emotion than admiration.
Cuomo, like FDR during the Depression, trusted the public with the truth. In turn, they have grown to trust and rely on him in a deeply personal way. Through the use of empathy and compassion, Cuomo has personalized the crisis, articulating clearly his view that the value of life trumps economic or other considerations. For a populace both personally scared and uncertain, his words not only reassure, but they uplift and call us to a higher purpose. Cuomo’s leadership is not just strategic or tactical — it is moral. And, moral leadership, in times like these, builds a strong bond of trust between the leader and those he leads.
Bush depleted his 9/11 popularity by breaking faith with the bipartisan spirit born in the attack and wasted it over the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Giuliani’s popularity faded in the transparency of his ambition tied to the successes that built his popularity in the first place.
No one can predict the future. Surely, Giuliani saw his very differently. For Cuomo, if he continues to lead New York with common sense, honesty and purpose, retaining the public trust he has earned, the future will take care of itself.
Jay Jacobs is chairman of the New York State Democratic Party.
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