Brave Thinkers 2012 November 2012

The Bloomberg Way

The mayor of New York on his soda ban, why he doesn't worry about approval ratings, governing in the age of Twitter, and the dumbed-down media
Jake Chessum

You could look at Michael Bloomberg—astringent, profane, irritated by small talk, impatient with the politics of empathy—and see a plutocrat whose billions have given him the freedom to say and do whatever he wants, even to change the law to run for a third term as New York City’s mayor. Or you could look a little further and see a more interesting pattern: a man who turned getting shunted off the fast track at Salomon Brothers—over to information technology, no place for a fledgling master of the financial universe—into an opportunity, creating an entirely new approach to getting traders the data they needed; who took getting fired as a chance to gamble his payout on this idea; who then took the billions he made and chose not to embark on a lifelong vacation but to step into the least-forgiving political arena in the country; and who has since governed New York assertively, putting himself in the vanguard of a generation of mayors who, at a time when the federal government is paralyzed, are testing new approaches to education, transportation, and public health. You begin to see a guy, in sum, who thinks for himself, but not only of himself.

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The Full Interview

An uncut transcript of this conversation

I visited the mayor recently at the open bullpen that is his nerve center at City Hall, where he works from a cubicle in the center of the room. Howard Wolfson, one of his deputy mayors, was telling me how hard it was to close struggling schools, when Bloomberg joined us at one of the small tables that sit on a raised platform along one wall, near the coffeepot. Wolfson was saying that the administration had shut more than 100 schools. “Yeah, 140, I think,” the mayor said briskly as he settled into a worn, straight-back chair. Unlike most politicians or businessmen I’ve interviewed, he never once suggested he would make a comment off the record or on background—it didn’t seem to occur to him that he might—or even hesitated before answering, in a conversation that ranged from his plan to limit the size of sodas, in order to combat obesity; to his approach to governing; to his defense of a mosque being built near Ground Zero; to his views of the presidential candidates and the future of journalism. What follows are excerpts; a full transcript is online.

On why he’s tackling obesity:

This is the first disease that has gone from a rich person’s disease to a poor person’s disease. Generally, it would go in the other direction. For the first time in the history of the world, this year, more people will die from the effects of too much food than from starvation.

And there’s one other answer to the question as to why. And that is—whether it is in my foundation [Bloomberg Philanthropies] or here [as mayor]—I like to take on those things that other people either are unwilling to take on for political reasons, or unwilling to take on because it’s just too complex, or they just don’t care. That would include guns, for example. If you think about it, it is poor minorities that are the victims, and so most elected officials would not get involved—or foundations—and I think we should.

On why he’s limiting the size of sodas:

The correlation between the rise in obesity and the consumption of sugar is just up 100 percent … no matter what the beverage companies think or say. Look, the beverage companies aren’t stupid. Coca-Cola is run by a very smart guy; PepsiCo by a very smart woman. They see this train coming down the tracks at them. And that’s why they’re trying to get people to move over to Coke Zero or Diet Coke or … Diet Pepsi, because down the road, the public is going to say “No más. The cost of treating obesity is just out of control.”

On how McDonald’s fought him when he insisted that New York’s restaurants post calorie counts, but is now taking that step nationally, well ahead of a federal mandate:

McDonald’s … is a logical company for the public-health advocates to go after … [McDonald’s is acting] early and trying to make it into a positive … It’s just that the public slowly is going to have to be moved over. None of these things happen overnight.

On his reaction to the widespread opposition, in public polls, to his soda restrictions:

To some extent, it is [that] everybody is resistant to change. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that was opposed to the smoking ban … All of western Europe followed New York City. Many of the states around here did. Every major city, including in the tobacco-growing states in the United States, did. Brazil is smoke-free. Mexico City is smoke-free. All of France, Italy, Spain, England—they’re all smoke-free.

It takes a while. Leadership is about doing what you think is right and then building a constituency behind it. It is not doing a poll and following from the back. If you want to criticize the political process—and it’s probably true throughout history, and certainly not just in the United States—I think it’s fair to say, in business or in government, an awful lot of leaders follow the polls.

And that’s not the way to win. I happen to think it’s not ethical, or right, and not your obligation. But I don’t even think it’s good business or politics, because people aren’t good at describing what is in their own interest … What leaders should do is make decisions as to what they think is in the public interest based on the best advice that they can get, and then try and build a constituency and bring it along.

The public, I believe—and I’ve always thought this—is much more likely to follow if the public believes that you are genuine … George W. Bush, who I don’t agree with on a lot of things, I think he got elected and reelected because the public thought he was genuine. They think his father was genuine. Jeb—I know [him] very well; he’s on the board of my foundation—he is genuine, they believe.

And Al Gore and John Kerry tried to be on both sides of every issue. “I voted for the war, but not to fund it.” And that’s Mitt Romney’s problem, I think. He walked away from everything he did. He actually was a pretty good governor of Massachusetts, where I come from. I think that’s a losing strategy, to not have values. I think the public wants you to have them and will respect you for them. They may carp a little bit, but in the end, that’s the kind of person they want. They want somebody who has real conviction.

“If I finish my term in office … and have high approval ratings, then I wasted my last years in office.”

On why high approval ratings mean you’re failing:

If I finish my term in office … and have high approval ratings, then I wasted my last years in office. That high approval rating means you don’t upset anybody. High approval rating means you’re skiing down the slope and you never fall. Well, you’re skiing the baby slope, for goodness’ sakes. Go to a steeper slope. You always want to press, and you want to tackle the issues that are unpopular, that nobody else will go after.

On regulating metzitzah b’peh, the practice during circumcision whereby the mohel sucks the blood from the infant’s wound:

I think it’s fair to say that nobody else would take that on. I mean, come on! … Who wants to have 10,000 guys in black hats outside your office, screaming?

And yet, I said to the rabbis again yesterday: The science is not perfect, and it is to some extent an art—medicine—but there is a reasonable chance that this is dangerous to kids’ health. There have been some kids who we believe die or have brain damage from the practice. My obligation is to protect the citizens … The job is not to have high ratings.

On the president’s communication with the press:

I talk to the press five days a week … The president—how often does he talk to the press? His press secretary talks to the press every day, okay. But I happen to think the public should demand he should. I think he should; I think that’s his job.

On doing the tough stuff first:

In an election year, just before the election, maybe I cut you a break. Where I don’t cut you a break is the day after the election. I believe you do the tough stuff first. Why? Number one, you have an obligation to those who voted for you, to do what you promised. Number two, if you believe they’re the right things, you need some time to let them work out, adjust them, explain them, maybe cancel and change them—or whatever—before the next election.

And remember, I have a four-year term; presidents have a two-year term, because the midterm elections are so important.

On keeping track of commitments:

We have a scorecard—we haven’t updated it in about a year, but we are starting to do that again—which we will have done five or six times in my 12 years, where we listed every single campaign promise, and then mark them “Completed,” “In Progress,” “Still Good Ideas; We Haven’t Gotten to Them Yet,” or “Ain’t Going to Happen” …

And the thing that I find the most frustrating is that the Fourth Estate never picks up on it. They’ll write a story about those things that you said were a dumb idea, or those things that didn’t work, and never give you any credit for the other things. And never hold other elected officials to task. Now, there are private groups that do this. They keep track of how you vote in Congress and that sort of thing. But the public doesn’t get that information in a form that gets their juices going … Take a look at what Obama ran on, or what Romney did in Massachusetts, with guns. Romney signed a bill, which he lauded, stopping the ability to carry assault weapons. Obama campaigned on passing a bill to ban assault weapons. Neither did anything.

“For the first time in the history of the world, this year, more people will die from the effects of too much food than from starvation.”

On the low tax rate charged on “carried interest,” a benefit to hedge funds and private-equity investors:

The next tax bill should get rid of carried interest, which is a joke … My friends in the private-equity business think this is such a joke, even they can’t keep a straight face.

On how President Obama alienated Wall Street:

He had enormous support three years, or three and a half years, ago. An awful lot of Wall Street—for sure, more so than the business community, I think, across the country—is much more liberal than you’d think. They may be wealthy, but you know, the entertainment industry and Wall Street are traditional hotbeds of Democrats as much as Republicans, maybe even more so.

I think a lot of them were frustrated that he didn’t give the change that they had expected. I think a lot of them thought he’d be more of a centralist and less of a populist once he got elected.

On what people get for their campaign donations:

A lot of people support both sides. I know some people, not well—there are two brothers—one’s a very big giver to the Democratic Party, one’s a very big giver to the Republican Party. This is not an accident. This is deliberate, and they have a business that has a phenomenal protection … They get an enormous protection from the federal government for their company, their industry …

In Washington, they do take money—I know it’s open, though it’s hard to identify—they take money from the same people they regulate. Now, in New York City, you would never get away with that …

And when the guy says “Yes, I took money, but it didn’t influence my vote”? Oh, come on. The company that’s giving you the money thinks it is going to influence the vote. Why else would they give you the money?

On Obama’s biggest success:

I suppose, well, you can step back and say: showing that the country has gotten beyond the ethnicity or religion or whatever of an elected official. That was a big deal.

On whether he meant that Obama’s biggest success was just getting elected in the first place:

Just getting elected … And you can make the argument that JFK did the same thing, getting elected as a Catholic, or Mitt Romney running as a Mormon. I think that issue has come and gone. Nobody does any polling anymore [asking] “Would you vote for a Mormon or not?,” I don’t think … He’s got enough baggage—he’d be better off if that were the issue, because then he’d have the civil libertarians fighting for him rather than against him.

On another Obama success—education—and his education secretary, Arne Duncan:

I cynically say the president could’ve done a lot more. But he did stand up to a typical Democratic constituency, the teachers union—somewhat—and certainly has a secretary that the unions don’t like.

On whether Obama deserves credit for ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden:

That’s like giving Harry Truman credit for dropping the bomb: any president would’ve pushed that button, any president would’ve dropped the bomb. Harry Truman stood up to Douglas MacArthur. An awful lot of people wouldn’t have done that. Harry Truman integrated the Army. A lot of people wouldn’t have done that. Harry Truman had the Marshall Plan—if in World War I we’d done that, we wouldn’t have had a World War II. But dropping the bomb, no, and I don’t think, in this case, Osama bin Laden.

Giving Obama credit for killing Bin Laden is “like giving Harry Truman credit for dropping the bomb: any president would’ve pushed that button.”

On the lack of a clear Obama worldview:

I mean, Hillary Clinton’s very competent—but there’s no Obama Doctrine that I know of. I don’t know that anybody has enunciated a worldview the way that Henry Kissinger did in his day, or George Shultz, or even [James] Baker. I have nothing but respect for Hillary, but I think the world today is run out of the White House rather than Foggy Bottom and places like that.

On Obama’s biggest failure:

Well, his biggest failure is, he has been unable to pull Congress together—and that’s not to say anybody else could’ve done it either. It may be that it’s just too tough. But that is, in the end, the executive’s job, to pull both sides together, and I think he would—he’s frustrated—he would not say that he managed to get that done.

On how the Tea Party is like Occupy Wall Street:

The Tea Party is a manifestation of frustration. The Tea Party is almost like Occupy Wall Street—they don’t want it. What is “it”? They don’t know what “it” is, there’s just a general feeling that society is not going in the right direction. Now, the people that were in Zuccotti Park versus the people that are parading in conservative America may view what’s wrong very differently, but there’s just this sense of uneasiness in the country.

“We’ve dumbed down, and it’s not good for society.”

On his own regrets:

We haven’t improved the schools as much as we want. We’ve raised graduation rates from 40 percent to 60 percent, or whatever those numbers are, for minority kids as well as whites and Asians, but we’re still, I think, falling behind the needs of industry and the improvement in education elsewhere in the world. And we’ve done a better job than any other big city, far and away.

But you eat your heart out and say, “If I’d been smarter, could I have done more?” You can’t live your life that way. I mean, I’ve looked forward to coming into work every single day. I looked forward to going to work at Salomon Brothers, even the day I knew I was going to get fired. I’ve always been an optimist, I always think tomorrow is going to be better, I always think today is going to be fun, challenging.

On how he reacts to promotions and firings:

I have always had a policy: If it’s a friend and they get a promotion, I don’t bother to call them; I’ll see them sometime and make a joke about it. If they get fired, I want to go out to dinner with them that night. And I want to do it in a public place where everybody can see me. Because I remember when I got fired from Salomon Brothers—I can tell you every single person that called me. That meant something. When I was made a partner? I have no recollection of that whatsoever.

On whether he could possibly have really meant it when he said earlier in the interview that he would be satisfied exiting with a low approval rating:

Yeah, but it depends on your definition of “approval rating.” If your approval rating is the polls, I don’t care. Number one, incidentally, if you go out with low approval ratings, six months later it’s like you’re dead. Everybody loves you once you’re dead. So that’ll come back right away. If the approval rating is the most important poll: I get up in the morning, I gotta look in the mirror. Before I go to bed, I’ve gotta turn off the light. I said this one time and the press made fun of me, but you’ve gotta like what you see. How would it be to go to bed ashamed of what you did? Or having to lie to yourself?

You know, I come home and I always say—and my kids don’t live with me anymore; they’re adults—but you’ve gotta be able to come home and explain to your kids what you did that day, without shading it or hiding it. If you find yourself finding a clever way of [talking] to your kids that really doesn’t tell the truth but gets you through the answer, what kind of person are you if you want to do that? And there’s also the—what’s the word I’m looking for?—validation of people you respect. In the public-health area, Tom Farley, our public-health commissioner, Tom Frieden of CDC, if Al Sommer, formerly the dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health—if those people think you did a good job, the fact that the public might not? Okay, come on, who would you rather have in your court?

On how people react to him on the street:

When I walk down the street, cabdrivers, bus drivers stop the bus, trucks, people [say] “Good job, good job.” And if that doesn’t put a smile on your face, I don’t know what does. And it’s not just on the Upper East Side. When I go to neighborhoods where you’d think, What do they have in common with this 70-year-old white Jewish billionaire?, and yet, the reception—now, it’s true that if they don’t like you, most people would never scream at you and say “Fuck you.” On the other hand, a big percentage of people smile and say “Good job.” What they’re thinking, I don’t know. The only time anybody’s ever yelled at me on the subway—a big hulking guy, on the other side of the train—I got off and as I turned around as the doors closed, he screams at me, “Fix the Knicks!” This was eight, nine years ago. I can do a lot of things, but that ain’t one of them, let me tell you.

On the state of journalism:

I’ve never believed this argument: “You should get the news that you care about, and that’s the only thing,” and all the technology’s designed to let you select what news. You don’t know what you care about. Because what you care about changes with what’s going on in the world, and you need somebody to make those decisions for you. You say, “I don’t want anybody to make decisions for me, what’s in my interest.” Of course you do. That’s what the editor does—the editor and the headline writer, the layout person—and they tell you the stories in importance by size and how big the headline is, and if you don’t like their selection, then you go to a different publication. I do believe that there is a market for upscale news …

“Elected officials say ‘Oh my God, 1,000 people just Twittered me or Facebooked me’—or whatever the thing. they don’t even know the difference.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is, I think it is fair to say, the quality of journalism has gone down dramatically. It is a function of the economics of the news business. We don’t have experienced reporters. We get rid of them and get low-priced novices who have never traveled and have no understanding of what they’re writing … We don’t have the editors, we don’t have the legal beagles, you have the competition of the blogs—I don’t know what the difference between a blog and a newspaper is, for example, and sometimes they have different standards, even under the same logo and the same name.

So I think we’ve dumbed down, and it’s not good for society. It’s hard to argue that we aren’t going more towards an instant-gratification, sound-bite kind of world. And I think the technology is driving that; the economics of the business, as I just said, is driving that; the political process is driving it.

On governing in the age of Twitter:

Today, there is an instant poll on everything. And elected officials say “Oh my God, 1,000 people just twittered me or Facebooked me”—or whatever the thing. They don’t even know the difference. “This is a disaster. I’ve gotta go out with a statement right away condemning it.” Maybe that’s what happened to Romney [when he criticized the Obama administration the night news broke of Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s death]. Who the hell knows? … If every time you want to do something, they demand the final results, when you’re just sort of feeling your way and trying to evolve, it’s hard to govern …

In medicine, or in science, you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution, because we know we don’t have to go down that path again. In the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks in government …

Innovation is very difficult. The more exposure there is, the more difficult it is. And people say “Why does government not work?” It is partially because the public demands answers before they are available; it’s partially because [the public] expects a sound-bite solution to how you’re going to cure cancer or bring peace to the Middle East; it’s partially that government fuels those things because it makes it easier to avoid answering and taking specific positions and getting blamed for anything.

Presented by

James Bennet is the editor in chief and a co-president of The Atlantic. Prior to joining the magazine in 2006, he was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. More

"I wanted a profound and extreme talent who led quietly, was generous to others, and comported himself with collegial respect," remarked Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley when announcing his selection of James Bennet as the magazine's fourteenth editor in chief in early 2006. "On all scores, but surely these, I have conviction on James' appointment." Before joining the Atlantic staff, Bennet was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. During his three years in Israel, his coverage of the Middle East conflict was widely acclaimed for its balance and sensitivity. His much-lauded long-form writing for The New York Times Magazine was responsible for catching the eye of David Bradley during his year-long search for a new editor. Upon accepting the position, Bennet told a Times reporter that he saw the Atlantic job as "a chance to help, encourage and preserve the practice of serious, long-form journalism." Bennet is a graduate of Yale University who began his journalism career at The Washington Monthly. Prior to his work in Jerusalem, he served as the Times' White House correspondent and was preparing to join its Beijing bureau when he was offered the Atlantic editorship.

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