Billionaire Mike Bloomberg tries on economic populism

In a Democratic Party where progressive populism has taken hold and several leading candidates like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are railing against the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few billionaires, Bloomberg’s evolution is something of a political necessity.

It’s also a way for Bloomberg to differentiate himself from President Trump, whose tax cuts have only served to heighten insecurities about rising income inequality. A new Pew Research Center survey found 61 percent of adult Americans feel there is “too much” inequality in the country. The concern was even more prevalent among Democrats and those who lean left.

“It’s a recognition of how the discourse in the Democratic Party has changed since Bloomberg was in office, and even since the last election,” said New York-based Democratic consultant Neal Kwatra, who is unaffiliated with any presidential campaign. “Rhetorically at least he sounds a lot more progressive. He sounds a lot more like [Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist] Bill Gates than he does [billionaire private equity pioneer] Stephen Schwarzman right now.”

“[It’s] also a recognition that if he’s going to be a part of a conversation, that he has to be aligned where the party’s priorities are,” he said.

Bloomberg’s team says the rebranding is not matched with substantive departures in policy — not because he’s still fiscally moderate, but because he never really was.

They point to a suite of measures he championed as mayor, from a local Earned Income Tax Credit that amounted to $860 million over a decade, to free debt counseling. Poverty rates plateaued on his watch, bucking national trends and earning him an award as he left office in 2013.

But parts of his legislative record, in addition to remarks about wealth and his own personal fortune — more than $60 billion from the creation of his eponymous media company — evince a different type of politician, one more concerned with the plight of business owners than their workers.

Bloomberg is, after all, the mayor who opted to cheer up demoralized staffers at Goldman Sachs when a former executive pilloried the investment bank behemoth upon resigning. He considered it his duty to stick with companies that contributed so much money to the city’s tax base, but in the wake of the financial collapse, it emboldened the perception that he didn’t empathize with the working poor.

He also vetoed three pieces of legislation aimed at improving conditions for low-wage workers — guaranteed paid sick days, a “living wage” for companies receiving city subsidies and higher pay for certain building service workers.

“When it comes to creating jobs, government is not the architect of the economy — that’s the private sector’s job,” he said at the time. “Government is the steward. And to be a good steward, government must take a balanced approach to regulation.”

On the presidential campaign trail, however, Bloomberg has embraced paid sick and family leave and a higher minimum wage.

His mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser, who is working on his 2020 campaign, said Bloomberg was worried at the time about “disadvantaging companies that hire New Yorkers.”

Policies aside, Bloomberg’s own rhetoric about wealth — and deprivation — helped sketch the caricature of an out-of-touch billionaire.

He once described sleeping in homeless shelters as a “much more pleasurable experience” because his team improved conditions during his tenure.