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Politics & Current Affairs

Bloomberg’s Marathon Reversal and the Power of Public Opinion

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn’t give in very often. During his reign, Bloomberg has pushed for smoking bans in bars, restaurants and city parks. He has wrested control of the public schools from the Board of Education. He has required chain restaurants to post nutritional information on their menus. Most recently and perhaps most brazenly, he pushed through an ordinance that bans the sale of large sugary drinks in bodegas. None of these proposals were popular. Some were ridiculed. But Bloomberg is not a man who gives in easily.

This time the mayor relented. After insisting for several days that the New York City marathon would go ahead as scheduled despite the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, he abruptly changed his mind:

In a statement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that while the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, it has “become the source of controversy and division.”

“The marathon has always brought our city together and inspired us with stories of courage and determination,” the mayor said. “We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it. We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event – even one as meaningful as this – to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track.”

This was the right decision, but it was jarring to watch Bloomberg backtrack so suddenly. And it really was sudden: only two hours earlier Bloomberg insisted that New York City is the kind of place where life goes on: “We have to keep going and doing things, you can breathe, cry and laugh at the same time that’s what human beings are good at.”

Given Bloomberg’s comments on what comprises leadership, the last-minute cancellation is quite a surprise. Here is how Blooomberg described his conception of leadership just last week:

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.

In sum:

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

So why Bloomberg’s switch on the marathon? Maybe it was the online petition. Maybe it was the NY Post editorial. Who knows, maybe it was even yesterday’s Praxis. Whatever finally convinced him to halt the race, it is certain that the views of the public played the decisive role. For once, Bloomberg bowed to the court of public opinion. He found no compelling reason to cancel the race other than the fact of the controversy surrounding it, and it was the Internet and social media that fueled the backlash.

Steven Mazie is on Twitter: @stevenmazie


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