Could a Sitting Mayor Become President?

Could a Sitting Mayor Become President?

By Pooja Bhatia



Because the nation-state is so 20th century.

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

Last month, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, became Italy’s prime minister. Boyish and ebullient and only 39, Renzi launched himself into the new gig like a rocket, elbowing out corrupt politicians, promising to clean up Rome, and inspiring a bit of hope among a citizenry worn out from the bunga bungas of dirty old men.

All to the good, but we must wonder — is mayor to prime minister really a step up?

There’s a new star on the geopolitical stage: the city. According to a number of scholars, cities have usurped the role nation-states used to play. Credit metropolitan growth, or blame dysfunctional national politics. Nowadays, the modern metropolis has an Athenian city-state sheen about it.

It’s mostly well-earned. While presidents fight their legislatures and party elders squabble over ideology, cities are quietly getting things done: ramping up early education, tackling climate change, luring investment, creating jobs and, perhaps most important, modeling effective governance. 

That’s why, scholars say, City Hall has become fertile ground for new ideas — and for mayors to build and demonstrate their leadership chops. Higher-ups have noticed. Like Italy’s Renzi, Jakarta’s überpopular mayor, Joko Widodo, has been tapped by elders to resuscitate a hidebound party; Widodo will likely be Indonesia’s next president. And in the U.K., the Tories know they need the support of London mayor Boris Johnson, whose charisma and efficacy appeals to Labour voters, too. What they worry about is keeping Johnson, and his own national ambitions, in line. 

Joko walking towards the camera in white button down short sleeved shirt

Joko Widodo

Source Corbis

While the mayoralty hasn’t been a presidential launchpad in the U.S., mayors — and coalitions of mayors — are gaining influence at the federal policy level. Or at least trying to. Think former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control initiative, or former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s transit coalition. “Every day, mayors are proving that you don’t have to wait for the gridlock to clear in Congress in order to make things happen,” President Barack Obama told a collection of city potentates in January.

Was that envy in his voice? 

“In the old days, it was the mayors going to Washington with hat in hand,” says Benjamin Barber, a historian and the author of If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. This time, he says, “it was the president asking cities and mayors for help, because they’re the ones wrestling above their weight class.”

There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage.

If Mayors Ruled the World argues that cities are best positioned to tackle the problems of the new millennium, and that mayors — who necessarily emphasize pragmatism over ideology and problem-solving over partisanship — are the governance heroes of our time. 

“There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage,” former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia famously said, which is more or less the point. Mayors get things done because they must; national governments, hidebound and sclerotic, increasingly don’t. 

One reason: Mayors have strong incentives against ideological grandstanding. “If you’re John Boehner, you can afford to shut down the government. That’s part of your arsenal. But if you’re mayor, you can’t shut down Louisville. You can’t close Chicago,” says Barber. 

Relatively free from ideological constraints, cities have become incubators for finding answers to some of the dilemmas of our time, like sustainability and security, and hubs for innovation, too. That’s why so many young people are going into local government, says Brooks Rainwater, director of city solutions and applied research at the National League of Cities. 

“Many years ago, John F. Kennedy told us, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ and a generation responded with federal service,” says Rainwater. “Today’s young generation is just as idealistic, but you’re seeing them focus on improving their cities instead.”

Demographic changes, meanwhile, have given mayors much larger constituencies and economies. For the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lives in cities; in developed countries, it’s more like 78 percent, says Barber. Some megacities house more people than many countries. The Tokyo-Yokohama metro area, for instance, is home to 37.5 million people, more than Canada, Morocco, Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. And then there are metropolises that are younger than you, like Shenzen, China, which grew from about 30,000 people in 1979 to 12 million today. It’s a “city without a history.”

Mayors are more like neighbors than gods, and we don’t merely forgive their quirks — we revel in them. 

American cities already generate the lion’s share of its GDP, and many are building international economic and trade partnerships on their own. Portland, Ore., for instance, intends to double its exports over the next five years and add 100,000 jobs to the regional economy, write Brookings scholars Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz. It’s evidence that “[t]here is, in essence, no American economy. Rather, the national economy is a network of metropolitan economies.”

For all this power, though, mayors are more like neighbors than deities, and we don’t merely forgive their quirks — we revel in them. There are structural reasons for this. Mayors’ actions affect our everyday lives in ways that governors’, Congressmen’s and president’s don’t. They cast policy that determines whether we can smoke in bars and the length of our morning commute. Mayors are celebrities who walk among us, and the savvy exploit this power: No wonder Renzi chafes at the security detail who can’t abide his morning runs. Of course Bloomberg so ostentatiously took subway to work (an SUV dropped him off at the express stop). Much of the appeal of Widodo, of Jakarta, came from his blusakan, or unannounced visits, to mingle with the hoi polloi. 

Cory speaking into mic at podium with people surrounding him

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., second from right, speaks during a news conference to discuss unemployment insurance, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Source Susan Walsh/Corbis

And don’t get us started on Cory Booker, the former mayor and now senator who spent the first eight years of his mayoral term in a troubled housing complex and the following ones rescuing creatures from burning buildings. 

For all that popularity, though, no sitting American mayor has ever leapt straight from city hall to the Oval Office, or even secured his party’s nomination. Only two former U.S. mayors have become president: Grover Cleveland, onetime mayor of Buffalo, N.Y., and Calvin Coolidge, who once presided over Northhampton, Mass. Coolidge wasn’t even elected president; he replaced Warren G. Harding, who died before finishing out his term. 

“In general, mayors don’t make that trip,” says Barber. “Never in the long history of the United States has a major city mayor become president. And that’s not an accident. You have to reckon with that.” 

And there’s the rub: Municipal and national politics are fundamentally different, he says, and the pragmatist, nonpartisan approach that’s such an asset at the mayor’s office can be a liability in national office. “The result is that the kinds of people who end up as mayors have a hard time” in national office, says Barber.

Of course, there’s always a first. With the growing prominence of cities, and big-personality former mayors like Bloomberg and Booker, we may well see a shift. Which we’d totally welcome, as long as President Booker remains on fire duty.

This story was originally published March 17, 2014.

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.