During the social unrest and racial awakening of the 1960s and ’70s, the mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay, coined a memorable phrase about his chosen occupation: “the second toughest job in America.” This wasn’t self-indulgence on Lindsay’s part; the complexities of leading New York have sometimes rivaled the challenges of the presidency.
It would follow, then, that during this moment when New York is so central to the crises afflicting the country — as the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and convulsing with protests related to its long, troubled history of racism in policing — that the president, a New Yorker himself, and the mayor would rise as their predecessors did to lead the country in times of shared despair.
Instead, President Trump and Mayor Bill de Blasio are both diminished as leaders, polarizing and lacking the trust of the people they serve. Far from alleviating tensions, they have each sparked an outpouring of anger from demonstrators in the streets. Rather than using the crisis as an opportunity to speak to people outside their base of political support, they have alienated even their own supporters.
And as leaders at the state and local level all across the country have tried to meet the demands of the moment with bold policy proposals and inspiring messages, observers who have closely followed the careers of both Mr. Trump and Mr. de Blasio said the men seemed like bystanders to the historic events unfolding around them.
“Both of them together, at the wrong time in history, have provided very little leadership,” said George Arzt, a longtime Democratic consultant and former City Hall aide under Mayor Edward I. Koch.
On a national level, that leadership vacuum has been filled by governors — most prominently by a third New Yorker, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — and a few standout mayors. Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, for instance, has won praise for speaking movingly about her anxieties over law enforcement as a black mother. And Muriel Bowser of Washington, who has challenged Mr. Trump for using the military to quell demonstrations in the capital, had a major thoroughfare near the White House repainted with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” — a show of defiance that Mr. de Blasio said he would copy.
“I can’t remember,” Mr. Arzt added, “when the leading mayor in the country was not from New York City.”
Though the mayor and the president are politically polar opposites — Mr. Trump a latecomer to the arch-conservatism his administration has pursued and Mr. de Blasio a longtime progressive advocate — they have similar flaws and challenges as leaders.
Neither man has been particularly willing or eager to reflect on their downplaying of the coronavirus early on. Mr. Trump has said he wouldn’t change anything about his administration’s response. Mr. de Blasio has defended actions that critics said made him look indifferent and self-involved, like when he traveled with his security detail from Gracie Mansion in Manhattan to his gym in Brooklyn for one last workout a few hours before businesses across the city would shutter for months because his own administration had determined it was no longer safe for them to operate.
Kevin Sheekey, a senior aide to former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said the lack of leadership from Washington was putting an even greater burden on local governments and their leaders. “We have these back-to-back crises,” he said, “and they require national responses. But we don’t have an individual in D.C. who can make the best of what he has been given and bring people together, and that’s an enormous problem for us.”
Regarding the national platform Mr. Cuomo has attained with daily briefings, Mr. Sheekey said, “Normally that kind of role is not filled by Albany.”
Both Mr. Trump and Mr. de Blasio have suffered from failing to reach beyond their narrow bases of support, analysts said. Had they broadened their appeal, voters might have more trust in them, said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic consultant and longtime observer of New York politics.
“The irony is that de Blasio, who considered himself the leading progressive, and Trump, who considered himself Mr. Conservative, the leader of a movement, are mirror images of each other,” Mr. Gyory said. “And by never trying to expand their base, they have belittled themselves in the wake of this crisis.”
But now even parts of their base are unhappy. Mr. Trump has been losing support among white evangelicals, the foundation of his political coalition.
And in an affront to Mr. de Blasio, some African-Americans have literally turned their backs on him. At a recent demonstration in Brooklyn honoring George Floyd, the black man whose killing by a Minneapolis police officer sparked nationwide protests, the mayor was heckled and jeered as some in the crowd turned away from him. It was a display of disgust that has been directed at him before — but from police officers who complained that the mayor did not respect them, not progressive New Yorkers who helped put him in office.
In other times of national crisis, the president and the mayor of New York have worked in tandem to create a sense that the fate of the nation and its largest city were closely intertwined. Before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a New Yorker, put Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in charge of the national Office of Civilian Defense, which helped state and local governments prepare for looming conflict.
The Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 made Rudolph W. Giuliani “America’s Mayor,” for a time at least, after his steady and stoic response, first glimpsed by the nation when he emerged from an emergency command center two blocks from the World Trade Center and urged the city to remain calm, his clothes dusted in ash from the fallen south tower.
Mr. Giuliani and President George W. Bush displayed a unified front and became the faces of the recovery, working together to triage the country’s frayed nerves.
The country saw them together when Mr. Bush appeared at Ground Zero on Sept. 14, Mr. Giuliani at his side, and shouted into a bull horn to the emergency responders digging through the rubble. “I can hear you! I can hear you!” Mr. Bush said. “And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” Mr. Bush’s leadership immediately after the attacks pushed his approval ratings to 90 percent. They remained above 70 percent for another 10 months.
Whatever you thought of their politics as Republicans, historians said, there was a general sense that Mr. Bush and Mr. Giuliani were leading with confidence and steadiness.
“Bush — whether you liked or didn’t like what he did — didn’t lose interest, as our current president seems to have done with Covid,” said John M. Murphy, a scholar of the American presidency at the University of Illinois.
And with Mr. Giuliani, he added, the country saw someone who “bluntly faced the crisis by telling the truth: ‘This is going to be hard, it’s going to take a long time to get out of this, but we’re going to keep working at it.’” By contrast, Mr. Murphy said, “Mayor de Blasio has been absent to us in the rest of the country.”
Mr. Bush and Mr. Trump both had to confront the major crises of their administrations with similarly shaky political standings. But Mr. Bush, who also lost the popular vote in his first election, intentionally sought a unifying approach as he led the country in the weeks after the attacks.
Peter Wehner, a speechwriter for Mr. Bush, recalled how the president understood that he could be more effective if Americans believed their political leadership wasn’t divided.
“After 9/11 this was true across the board. It wasn’t just Giuliani and Bush being in sync. It was Bush and Democrats being in sync that was important,” Mr. Wehner said. And as White House aides debated where Mr. Bush should give his speech on Sept. 20, the president ultimately settled on delivering it before the bipartisan audience of a joint session of Congress.
“It was essential that the country see Democrats and Republicans and the national political leadership come together,” Mr. Wehner said.
Mr. Trump’s public utterances and appearances have been light on appeals to unity and healing. He has yet to visit New York City — where he was born and lived nearly all of his life before switching his residency to Florida last year — since the pandemic hit, claiming the lives of more than 30,000 people so far, the highest by far of anywhere in the country. He blamed the Secret Service for not allowing him to go. He has not held anything like a memorial service to honor the more than 116,000 people in the United States who have died from the virus.
Mr. Trump hasn’t revealed himself to be any different than the person he was when he first campaigned for president four years ago: impulsive, go-it-alone and lacking any capacity for self-doubt and self-reflection. Mr. de Blasio, however, has revealed himself to be something quite different from the transformational progressive who campaigned promising to address income inequality and racial disparities in policing.
His leadership has been criticized as passive, reactive and inconsistent. He resisted pressure to shut down public gathering places as the number of infections in the city rose in March. Then, one day after encouraging New Yorkers to grab a bite and a drink at the establishments they loved, he ordered them all closed. He wrongly claimed in April that scientists had just learned that asymptomatic carriers could spread the virus, when in fact it had been known for weeks. Despite feeling sick this week and participating in demonstrations over the weekend that exposed him to thousands of people, the mayor’s office said he would not be tested for the coronavirus, going against the city’s own guidelines.
When the city erupted after Mr. Floyd’s death, looters and vandals broke into stores, set fires and damaged property for two nights before the mayor declared a citywide curfew, prompting a dressing down from Mr. Cuomo, who said Mr. de Blasio and the New York Police Department “did not do their job.” But then Mr. de Blasio found himself undercut again. The police so aggressively enforced the curfew on peaceful protesters that the mayor was accused of enabling the very kind of police behavior he once promised to stop.
“It’s a very, very tough job,” Mr. Arzt said of being mayor. “But the guy who is out there fighting for leftist causes has disappeared.”