NEW YORK -- On a cold December morning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has just finished breakfast at a diner and is heading for work at city hall. A taxi driver spots him on the sidewalk and leans out the window. "Bloomberg, way to go! Great job!"
As he tells the story, the mayor is clearly delighted by the spontaneous show of support, but at the halfway point of his four-year term, the cab driver's compliment has become a rare affirmation for the Republican mayor in a city that has grown restless during his watch.
Bloomberg, 61, a billionaire who made his money through his media information company, Bloomberg L.P., said the city has come a long way after struggling through the World Trade Center attack and a cascading local economy -- which eventually led to the city's largest budget deficit since the 1970s.
"I would argue that everything in this city -- maybe not everything, but damn close to it -- you can't find something that isn't positive at the moment," he said, listing crime reduction and clean streets among his achievements.
But aside from poll approval ratings hovering around 35 percent, the continuing sluggish economy and ongoing budget problems, Bloomberg has plenty to worry about: Challengers are lining up to unseat him; union members who want raises pointedly call him "Bloombucks"; smokers forced from cozy taverns into the cold night air curse his smoking ban; homeowners grumble about his property taxes; renters gripe that he can't possibly understand their money troubles; and almost everyone says he lacks the ability to connect with them.
Working in cycles
Steven Cohen, a professor of public policy and administration at Columbia University, said that while the mayor's low approval ratings suggest trouble, Bloom-berg cannot be counted out given that he spent $74 million of his own money during the 2001 election.
"The polls are low and everyone thinks he's dead politically, but politics works in cycles and this is the right time to be down," said Cohen. "What he wants to do is to peak at the election."
Cohen said the mayor can proudly point to his administration's takeover of the city's failing public school system, management of the budget, and its ability to keep crime low and racial relations cool as his chief accomplishments.
Bloomberg's relative lack of political experience -- which he portrays as a favorable aspect rather than as an Achilles heel -- reveals itself in remarks that are sometimes blunter than he appears to realize.
"Remember, I'm not doing this because I needed a job," he said. "I'm not doing it for the publicity or the trappings. I had all of that. Quite the contrary. My lifestyle, arguably, is worse. Look, I have to work seven days a week."
Bloomberg said he plans to run -- and win -- the 2005 election, and has no clue about the source of persistent rumors that he will step down in two years to return to a life free of the scrutiny and criticism that comes with being mayor.
"As God is my witness," he said, raising his hand, "I have told nobody -- including myself, which is more important -- that I am not going to run."
He did acknowledge that some days are better than others.
"There are times when you're furious at somebody. There are times when you just want to throw your hands up and say, 'Isn't anybody honest?' There are times when you want to throw up your hands and say, 'Does anybody care?"'
Although he is the owner of a media firm himself -- and one of his company's most senior reporters covers him -- Bloomberg is confused by the way he is portrayed by the city's media, particularly by what he believes is an inattention to policy issues in favor of his malapropisms, stilted syntax and misremembered names.
He has become so frustrated that he has taken to fantasizing, Walter Mitty-style.
"Wouldn't it be great if 20 years from now, they wrote a story about (how) the public didn't appreciate it then, but look, the city makes the seminal change way back when 'Joe' was mayor," he said. "'Joe really did a great job.' That's a lot more important than, you know, a front page story, a headline."