How Coronavirus Made Andrew Cuomo America’s Governor
New York’s brash leader has risen to the occasion as the nation looks for a comforting leader during the public health crisis brought on by coronavirus.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference to discuss the first positive case of novel coronavirus or COVID-19 in New York State, March 2, 2020, in New York City.
Briefings, carried live on several networks, have a common template, a routine that is in itself reassuring. He starts with an update on the coronavirus numbers, followed by a PowerPoint illustrated account of what his government is doing to address the crisis. He moves on to new directives to control the spread of the virus and heal those infected with it. Then – appropriately seated two arms-length away from everyone else at the briefing – he gets personal, talking about how emotionally draining and frightening the coronavirus is, how it has affected his own family, and how he knows Americans will get through it together. These are exactly the sort of events many Americans expect from President Donald Trump and his administration during the global public health crisis that has scared individuals and spooked the financial markets. But they are coming from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whom associates say is rising to the unhappy occasion with a take-charge attitude they had expected and a comforting manner that has come as a surprise. And while Cuomo is technically only in charge of the matter as it affects the Empire State, political observers say he is filling the leadership role for people across the nation, especially as Trump's briefings offer mixed messages, personal grievances by the president and feuds with the press. "He's becoming America's daddy and America's son at a time when people's communities and relationships are falling apart. He's become the protector of the people from a bullet they can't see," says Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime, New York-based political consultant who has known Cuomo his entire life. "He is embodying America's sense of who it really wants to be at moments of crisis," adds Sheinkopf, who has advised Cuomo but also worked for his primary opponent in Cuomo's unsuccessful 2002 bid for governor.
Cuomo's emergence in the pandemic is an example, political observers say, of how different leaders react in a crisis. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has been praised for a nonpartisan approach. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been criticized for refusing to close Florida's beaches. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves has asked people to pray to end the crisis. Cuomo, meanwhile, has been among the most aggressive in ordering business closures and using New York's resources to buy personal protective equipment and expand hospital bed space. And he's gotten unusually personal as he's sought to convince New Yorkers to take the virus very seriously, but not to panic.
Ask New York politicos about Cuomo, and the answer will inevitably start with a private observation about Cuomo's combative, even bullying personality. He's had a testy relationship with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (sparring with him during the coronavirus crisis as well). He's feuded with the state's liberals, even as Cuomo has enacted such left-leaning goals such as a $15 minimum wage and free state college tuition for students with family incomes up to $125,000 a year. [ READ: Cuomo: Hospitals Must Increase Capacity ] The eldest of the elder statesmen observe that Cuomo is not his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose often mercurial personality was tempered by an intellect and compassion that had Democrats talking up a presidential bid (an idea Mario Cuomo considered and rejected in 1992). Andrew Cuomo, who ran his father's 1982 gubernatorial campaign and subsequently served as one of Gov. Mario Cuomo's advisers (for $1 a year, a nominal salary the younger Cuomo has quipped he never actually got), was the more harshly political of the two men. While Mario Cuomo trafficked in lofty ideas and eloquent speeches, Andrew Cuomo was the one thinking about how to win the suburbs and keep the political coalition together so his father could keep his job.
But the current crisis has brought out a side of the sitting governor observers say they rarely see. He's brought his daughters to his briefings, noting on Monday that while it's hard for all Americans, including himself, to avoid traveling to see each other for family events, the situation can have an upside – forcing people to slow down and in his case, having his daughter Cara Kennedy Cuomo at home with him. "The last thing you want, to be in Cara's position is to hang out with the old man.. listen to bad dad jokes," Cuomo said as his daughter looked on. But to be "with her a few months .. what a beautiful gift that is." Cuomo, says Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg, "is not known in New York as Mr. Comfort. He's not Mr. Rogers. He's not (legendary New York City mayor) Fiorello LaGuardia, reading the comics over the radio. That's not who he is. But in the midst of all of this, he has shown that side of himself to New Yorkers for the first time."
Cuomo has long sparred with Trump, and the two have traded accusations during the coronavirus pandemic as well. But more recently, Cuomo has pivoted from criticizing Trump to handling him, offering thanks and appreciation to a president who craves praise and responds defensively to criticism. Like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who quietly corrects Trump's statements without openly challenging him, Cuomo now lauds Trump for the help he has given, then not-so-casually mentions what else New York needs from the president.
"If Mario started as the philosopher-king, Andrew started more as the tactician – and picked up the philosopher along the way," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York. The take-charge part of Cuomo's demeanor is now a plus, much as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's headstrong personality worked well after 9/11, experts note.
"It's not like (Cuomo) was shy, demure or retiring. He's not throwing a lot of pitches he doesn't normally pitch," Miringoff says. "He's always been throwing at 95 (mph). It's just that the times are such now that what he delivers is very much needed." Greenberg is in the middle of a new poll assessing Cuomo's favorability among New Yorkers. The governor's approval rating has been up and down during his three terms, but has dropped from 77% in February 2011, to 44% last month, in the Siena College poll. While the data are still coming in, "anecdotally… I think we're going to see a significant rise in the way voters are viewing Andrew Cuomo right now," Greenberg says.
And that image now transcends New York, as citizens around the country look to Cuomo for leadership, Sheinkopf says. "One thing is sure. Andrew has now become the nation's governor," Sheinkopf says.