Coronavirus

The end of #PresidentCuomo?

As he faces more scrutiny, the governor defends delay in social distancing.

Governor Cuomo on March 30th greeting the USNS Comfort in New York City.​

Governor Cuomo on March 30th greeting the USNS Comfort in New York City.​ Darren McGee/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

In the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was basking in adulation. It was not just what he was saying about the coronavirus pandemic that was comforting people across the country, but also how what he said contrasted with a president who has deflected blame throughout the crisis. “The buck stops on my desk,” Cuomo told reporters on March 17. “I assume full responsibility.” 

But he has equivocated on that in recent days, suggesting he is looking to downplay his presence on the national stage. “I’m governor in the state of New York – yeah, you can announce a policy, that doesn’t mean anyone is going to follow it,” he told reporters at the state Capitol on Friday, responding to criticism that he waited too long to implement social distancing restrictions that could have dramatically curbed the spread of the virus in early March. 

The governor, who offered similar remarks during several television appearances, is making a notable rhetorical shift for a politician who touts himself and his state as national leaders. Social distancing restrictions could not possibly have happened earlier because the public would not have obeyed them, Cuomo claimed on MSNBC. This all comes at the end of a week when the three-term governor has pushed back at media criticism over his handling of the pandemic – even questioning the value of the media in the crisis.

“We’re still in the game so it is not the time for a retrospective,” Cuomo said at a Thursday press conference. “The game is gonna go on for a period of time and it may be another game right after it.”

Sports metaphors make sense for Cuomo, who frames the value of leadership insofar as it can put figurative points on the board. But like a coach speaking to players at halftime, the governor has at times extolled the value of using past mistakes to inform future efforts. “Let's learn how and why we have higher fatality rates among African Americans and Latinos,” the governor said of new data showing stark racial disparities in death rates, “and what we do about it.” 

The governor has said repeatedly in recent days that social distancing restrictions must continue, especially considering the threat of additional waves of the virus if New Yorkers become complacent. That also sounds like he is learning from experience, even if he does not say so.

And like it or not, reporters now have a record to scrutinize as the pandemic has entered its second month – and the governor appears to be coming down from the pedestal he owned in March. “Before you want to talk about what others did, what did you do?” he during a Tuesday appearance on the TV show his brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo.

Like other politicians, Cuomo appears ready to take the credit when the going is good, but deflect blame onto the federal government – whose response has been widely criticized throughout the pandemic – when the media takes a hard look at the governor’s actions early on. Listening to experts is the “job” of a governor, Cuomo said Friday. “The way you lose creditability is either you’re in denial about what you’re looking at or you don’t act fast enough,” he added. “Or, you don’t achieve the goal.”

Cuomo maintains he would not do anything differently, even in retrospect. “No, no,” he told reporters this week. “This was a national crisis to be dealt with nationally.” He has made similar claims throughout the crisis, but they have taken on a new meaning in recent days considering the closer scrutiny of the governor. 

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