Potential third-party presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg turned 74 on Saturday, and if he wasn't using the occasion to reflect on his mortality and legacy, others were doing so for him.
"He's not going to run for president when he's 78, so this is it. This is his last chance," says Joyce Purnick, a former New York Times editor and columnist and the author of Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics. "I think he really needs to think about how he wants to go out, in terms of his last act in public life."
For those who have spent years studying and reporting on the financier, philanthropist and three-term New York mayor, the news a few weeks ago that Bloomberg is contemplating a presidential run hardly came as a shock. "I kind of rolled my eyes," says Julian Brash, a professor at Montclair State University and the author of Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City. "I think he's about ten years off the mark in terms of capturing the popular mood and taking advantage of the things that made him a strong political figure."
If he does decide to run, both Purnick and Brash agree Bloomberg has a tough road ahead — a much tougher road than he would have had in 2008, if he'd followed through on his threat to run then.
There are a number of reasons why the particular chemistry of this election cycle is inhospitable to a candidate like Bloomberg. With the two leading Democratic candidates having spent significant time addressing issues like police brutality and mass incarceration that disproportionately affect the black community, Bloomberg's legacy as the chief proponent of stop-and-frisk would not help him attract voters who believe Black Lives Matter. His investments in anti-gun-violence legislation through his nonprofit, Everytown for Gun Safety, and investigative website The Trace would make him unpalatable to voters who care deeply about the Second Amendment. And libertarians and Middle-American voters alike would take umbrage at the notion of President Bloomberg coming to take away their Big Gulps.
But both Purnick and Brash agree the thing that would do the most damage to a Bloomberg candidacy is his close association with Wall Street: something he leveraged to his advantage in 2001 and 2005, and to an even greater degree in 2008-2009, when he convinced New York City voters to give him a third mayoral term so he could to guide them through the financial crisis.
The first and second times Bloomberg ran for mayor, "the cultural figure of the master-of-the-universe CEO was very widespread," Brash says. "There was everything from the be-the-CEO-of-your-own-life books to CEO biographies. It was a high watermark for those folks."
The financial crisis changed things: CEOs, hedge-fund managers and billionaires like Bloomberg have gone from aspirational figures to scapegoats or bogeymen, as invoked by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. "Those are his people. That's his tribe," says Brash. "So when Sanders goes after finance, it's an attack — a political and policy attack, an economic attack, and also a cultural and identity-level attack — because Bloomberg hung with those people after the financial crisis, even the ones who were the most clearly bad actors."
Purnick sums up the problem concisely: "He is a product of Wall Street in a year in which Wall Street is very unpopular."
One of the big questions is whether the wealth Bloomberg acquired working on Wall Street could counteract the negative association that comes with it. Bloomberg, who is worth an estimated $37 billion, has said he would spend $1 billion on a campaign; would that be enough to change voters' minds about him?
Maybe, Purnick says. As the success of Sanders and Trump has demonstrated, voters like a candidate who doesn't accept money from lobbyists and special interests. Still, Bloomberg himself will be a tough sell. "No matter how much money Bloomberg spends, he cannot change his persona. He is a serious, rather dull guy. He's not a large public figure who knows how to command an audience, who knows how to kiss babies, who knows how to emote. He doesn't have those qualities. He doesn't have any charisma," Purnick says. "He's gotten much better than he was, but, boy, magnetic he is not."