In the early 1990s, the historian Melvin Holli set out to solve a problem with a book called “America’s Big City Mayors.” Although governing a place like New York or Philadelphia was one of the most important political jobs in the country, we had no scholarly ranking of mayors, no orderly system of evaluating them as we did for presidents, thanks to the work of midcentury academics. Relying on surveys of biographers, social scientists and experts in urban policy and on an elaborate methodology, Mr. Holli concluded that Fiorello La Guardia was the best mayor in the history of the United States. No other New York mayor appeared on the “best” list; three were included among the worst.
New York City is a notoriously difficult place to manage, and measuring success in real time is also complicated. On the face of it, the question of whether the current mayor is popular or not would appear to be a simple one determined by statistics, anecdote and so on, but it is knottier than that. In polling at the end of June, fewer than half of New Yorkers — 46 percent — indicated that they had a favorable opinion of Eric Adams, a decline of four points from his numbers in December.
By contrast, Bill de Blasio, whose mayoralty was dominated by conversations about his irresponsible gym habits and deficits of personality, was doing a lot better at the same point in his tenure. Even as the bourgeois creative class and the business elites were coming to reject him as if he were rancid fast food, 18 months in, he was holding at a 58 percent favorability rating, with 81 percent of Black voters expressing a positive view of him.
Mr. Adams’s problems occupy a wide space well outside the parameters of charisma. He has been criticized for a lack of vision or signature initiatives analogous to universal pre-K; a cronyist’s approach to staffing; a habit of petty and bizarre distortions of the truth. Some of this was predictable. During the campaign, his evasiveness led to headlines like, “Where Does Eric Adams Really Live?” because it was not obvious, a confusion that he blamed on shoddy paperwork at the hands of a homeless accountant.
Last week, we learned that a picture of an old friend, a cop who died in the line of duty 36 years ago, had not in fact been held closely by the mayor in his wallet for decades as he had previously suggested. Rather, it was printed in his office last year by underlings, in response to the death of two police officers in Harlem.
These shortcomings justify apprehension and may lead voters to turn toward someone new in 2025. And yet it is also true that New Yorkers hoping for a galvanizing figure, a mayor for all people, might need to adjust their expectations and make do with a mayor for half the people.
Our current political landscape makes it too hard for a broad-consensus affection to emerge for anyone — it’s almost impossible to imagine how widely embraced La Guardia was, or even Ed Koch in his first term. Over the past 10 years, most mayoral approval ratings have hovered just above or below 50 percent. Although Michael Bloomberg had an approval rate of 31 percent early in his tenure, he briefly reached 75 percent during his deft handling of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, before slipping down in the years ahead.
The 50 percent benchmark is so hard to surpass now, said George Arzt, a longtime political consultant in the city, because the electorate is so fragmented. La Guardia could govern well in part because as a liberal Republican who supported the New Deal he could connect to voters across constituencies. And there were simply fewer constituencies to think about.
Lacking the sharp ideological divisions that burden the party today, Northeastern Democrats were unified by a strong labor movement. La Guardia had to forge an alliance with Jews and Protestants, with immigrants from Northern Europe and Southern Europe, but he was not operating in a city of 600 spoken languages. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Dominican immigrants to the city alone multiplied more than tenfold, reaching 1.1 million.
Supporters of Eric Adams — and most people presumably — appreciate that violent crime and hate crimes are trending downward. Shootings have fallen 25 percent year to date. “I don’t think people are looking for vision; I think they’re looking not to get killed,” Alan Fishman, a banker, philanthropist and Adams backer, told me. “What you hear about cronyism and dysfunction, that doesn’t affect people day to day. It’s inside baseball.”
What does touch people is the sincerity of the commitment. Whatever you thought of his policies, it was hard to doubt Michael Bloomberg’s devotion to New York. Mr. Adams and Mr. de Blasio have been cast as temperamental opposites, but they share a prominent trait, a deep investment in their own marketing. (This was evident most recently in Mr. de Blasio’s case, with the long, moody interview he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, gave The Times announcing their separation, when the alternative in situations like this is typically an aloof three-line news release.)
Mr. de Blasio chased a national profile more or less from the moment he was elected mayor, and he was absent from the city for stretches when he ran for president, remaining in the race even though it had become clear his bid would go nowhere. Eager to engage the high-style factions of New York his predecessor ignored, Mr. Adams has been selling us on his “swagger” since his first week in office. History shows us that it is a very rare for the mayor of New York to move on to higher office. The goal ought to be legacy rather than fame.