5327335When he arrived in Albany Monday for a speech at Hudson Valley Community College, President Obama was greeted by none other than New York Democratic governor David Paterson. The two hugged on the tarmac at the airport, and the president went on to call Paterson "a wonderful man" in the speech.
But that doesn't mean it wasn't a little awkward.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that the president asked Paterson to withdraw from the state's 2010 governor's race because poll numbers suggest that he is not likely to hold the seat. The report was sourced to anonymous officials but was not denied by either Paterson or Obama's camp, and, indeed, seems to have been leaked by the latter.
A Marist College poll last week found that Paterson's approval rating sits at a dismal 20 percent. Marist found, by contrast, that New York voters are "enamored" with attorney general Andrew Cuomo, who has been considering a primary challenge against Paterson.
Paterson is signaling he is still in the race; he said Sunday that he "is running for governor right now...I am a candidate for governor." Note Paterson's use of the present tense, however; he says that he is running right now, but not necessarily promising he'll be in the race once things heat up. The Times, citing anonymous prominent Democrats, reports that Paterson is presently "mulling his options and open to the possibility of withdrawing." Paterson's already weak hand was made that much worse by the implication that he would be effectively running without White House support.
From a political perspective, there is good reason for the president to get involved in the race. Former New York City mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani has been considering a run for the governorship. The relatively weak Paterson is an appealing opponent for Giuliani, who he leads handily in current polls; against Cuomo, by contrast, polls suggest the former mayor is far less likely to prevail.
The president would far prefer to see Cuomo, a popular Democrat, serving as governor rather than the high-profile Giuliani, who could cause Mr. Obama serious headaches if he wins statewide office. In addition, Paterson is seen as a potential drag on the Democratic ticket in New York, and prominent Democrats fear that his presence could both imperil the party's slim majority in the state legislature and make it harder for the state's Democrats to win or retain seats in Congress.
But that's not the whole story. Some political observers both inside and out of the state have begun to question whether it is appropriate for the administration to intervene and potentially effectively limit the choices available to New York voters. This is not the first time the administration has gotten involved in the state's politics: The president reportedly "talked U.S. Rep. Steve Israel of New York out of a Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for New York's junior Senate seat," and state Democrats, working with the White House, have been successfully moving to clear Gillibrand's path through the primary.
The effort prompted New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman to write, "Some leading political lights act as if the state is their empire, not part of a republic in which supreme power is supposed to rest with its citizens."
White House involvement in local and statewide races is nothing new – though Mr. Obama's staff, which is headed by former powerful representative Rahm Emanuel, is perhaps particularly well suited to exert influence. In his gaggle with reporters Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tried to play down the importance of the administration's meddling.
"I would somewhat not subscribe to the notion that this is new," he said. "…To quote Paul Begala, not being involved in politics is like taking the math out of physics."