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Gov. Paterson succeeds as unlikely critic of Obama…

December 29, 2009 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

( Since being thrust into the mantle of leadership after the ignominious fall of his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, New York Governor David Paterson’s rocky tenure has transformed him into something of a political piñata. A withering recession, the state’s battered finances, New York’s often treacherous politics, and the weight of his own mistakes converged to drag Paterson’s public approval rating to levels that eclipsed even those of former President George W. Bush.

But ever since President Barack Obama made a very public and head-scratching foray into state politics by asking Gov. Paterson to withdraw from the 2010 gubernatorial election, something unusual has occurred: the governor has managed to hit his stride – as he launches broadsides against some of the president’s most important policy priorities.

Since the public falling-out with the president in September, Gov. Paterson has sharpened his critique of President Obama’s initiatives in a way that elevated his profile and advanced his credibility, even as he takes aim at a sitting president from his own party.

Last week, Gov. Paterson joined Mayor Mike Bloomberg in assailing the Senate’s health care reform proposal, President Obama’s signature domestic priority and the culmination of decades of effort by the governor’s own Democratic Party to create a universal health care system. Paterson argues that the bill’s current form would force New York City to shutter numerous health clinics, while costing the state much needed revenues as it grapples to overcome a deepening fiscal crisis.

His salvo on health care came fast on the heels of a widely publicized speech earlier this month, in which he defended Wall Street bonuses that have been in the crosshairs of the Obama administration as it moves to implement far-reaching financial sector reforms. Eyebrows were also raised when the governor voiced dissent over Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try the key perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks in federal court.

Clearly, at least part of the governor’s recent outspokenness can be attributed to politically motivated score-settling. Gov. Paterson’s relationship with President Obama turned stormy after he made an ill-advised attempt to attribute both his and President Obama’s political woes to racism. But even some supporters of the president were taken aback by the White House’s ham-fisted move push Gov. Paterson out of the 2010 election, then added insult to injury by embracing the governor’s putative rival, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. And with President Obama’s job approval ratings on the decline, the governor may also feel he has little to lose by underscoring their policy differences.

That said, it’s still fair to surmise that New York’s first African-American governor has found his voice as an unlikely critic of the nation’s first African-American president. Gov. Paterson’s poll numbers, while still fairly dismal, have climbed since he’s taken on the president’s most controversial policies. Policy disputes with the White House – even one that has no use for him – has helped the governor to cement his own leadership style in the eyes of the public.

And in certain ways, Gov. Paterson has been a more effective critic of the Obama administration than many Republican officials and even other Democrats, some of whom have expressed misgivings about health care reform. Paterson’s criticisms have more bite because not only is he a governor from a solidly “blue” state, he also can’t be denounced as racially insensitive for not sharing the president’s vision.

It is still a stretch to think Gov. Paterson can save himself from impending electoral disaster in 2010. But the governor’s recently enhanced profile does grant him some leverage as he makes his case to a fickle electorate.

Written By Javier E. David

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