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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's travels around the country to spread his concerns about inequality have helped to catapult the first-term mayor to national prominence. But his move to become a national progressive figure has come with missteps and speculation from some.
De Blasio's jaunt outside of the five boroughs and down I-95 to Washington, DC on Tuesday occurred on a fitting day that coincidentally put progressive ideals in the spotlight. As de Blasio pushed his progressive agenda, President Barack Obama participated in a forum on poverty and as Senate Democrats blocked progress on a trade deal that progressives severely dislike.
It was a perfect storm for de Blasio who had his own plans of positioning himself as a national leader in the progressive movement. Over the course of two news conferences he introduced himself to national reporters in a speech heavy on his philosophy and accomplishments. He also unveiled a "progressive agenda" and provided commentary on the presidential race - all this while insisting that the mayor of the country's largest city should play a prominent, national role in domestic policy.
“I’ll remind everyone … the solutions innovated at first the state and local level, including in my state of New York and my city of New York, and then at the national level by the Roosevelt administration.”
At an event Tuesday morning where he endorsed a wonky 99-page report on reducing economic inequality by economist Joseph Stiglitz, de Blazio praised the report as a "new and powerful platform" for a national discussion. Speaking after progressive hero, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he also invoked the post-Great Depression New Deal ideas and justified his role in the event by reminding people that many reforms started at the local level.
"I'll remind everyone … the solutions innovated at first the state and local level, including in my state of New York and my city of New York, and then at the national level by the Roosevelt administration," he said.
Just hours later, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, moments after Senate Democrats dealt a major blow to President Barack Obama by blocking a major trade deal with 12 pacific nations, de Blasio unveiled his "Progressive Agenda," a document that includes 13 ideas ranging from raising the minimum wage to universal pre-school to paid sick leave to closing tax loopholes.
De Blasio was flanked by progressive members of Congress and labor leaders who endorsed his plan to create opportunity for workers in an economy where wages are stagnant and the middle class is feeling squeezed.
But not all endorsed his actions.
Absent from his news conference was one of the star of the progressive movement - Sen. Warren - the Massachusetts senator who has grassroots organizations working to persuade her to run for president.
Warren’s office would not say why she wasn't at de Blasio's event, but it was notable since Warren has been the most high profile spokesperson in the Democratic Party on issues of economic inequality.
De Blasio praised Warren, however, for her role in opposing the deal and publicly sparring with the president.
“I think bottom line on trade is I couldn't agree more with Elizabeth Warren and progressives who are saying that they are deeply concerned about this trade deal,” de Blasio said.
Another progressive leader absent from the news conference was Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, who announced his presidential campaign last week and is one of the most liberal members of the Senate. His office also didn’t respond to questions about why he didn’t attend.
Also a slight knock to progressives, In his 13-point plan, which included specific agenda items, de Blasio didn’t include two of the major issues critical to the national progressive movement: debt-free college and expanding social security. Those are issues that have grown in stature over the months as groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are pushing Hillary Clinton to adopt in her presidential campaign.
Instead, De Blasio’s plan says student loans should be reformed so that students pay less interest on their loans, a move away from the current system of interest-plagued loans but far from “debt-free college.”
When asked about it, de Blasio acknowledged that his progressive agenda differs from what some groups want but added that he would be adding debt-free college to his plan in the coming days. He said he would also add the expansion of Social Security to his plan – an original omission that concerned some progressives.
“It’s great news that Mayor de Blasio is adding his powerful voice to the growing movement to make big ideas like debt-free college and expanding Social Security central to the 2016 presidential debate,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
As the presidential election ramps up, De Blasio made it clear that he wants the candidates to adopt his ideas – a tactic that progressives have also been using to push Hillary Clinton to the left.
“We’ll be calling on leaders and candidates to address these issues, to stiffen their backbones, to be clear, to champion these progressive policies,” he said Tuesday.
Like he has done before, de Blasio once again wouldn’t endorse Clinton, whom he worked for in 2000 when he managed her campaign for New York Senate. While their offices are just miles apart in New York City, in DC he publicly urged her focus on inequality.
“I have been really clear about the fact that I believe that people running for president, governors, senators should respond to this agenda. Either agree with it or offer their own version of how we address income inequality,” he said of his former boss.
While de Blasio is in DC, a poll by Quinnipiac University Poll found that his poll numbers continue to drop. Only 44 percent of New Yorkers approved of his job performance while 46 percent said he should focus on New York instead of focus on a national agenda.
Michael Morey, a Democratic political strategist in New York City who has worked for numerous New York Democrats including Sen. Chuck Schumer said it’s probably too early in his first term for de Blasio to start traveling the country and focusing his attention elsewhere. He said that while de Blasio has implemented some policies such as universal pre-school for some New York children and pledged 200,000 additional units of affordable housing, he hasn’t yet completely established himself well enough to tout accomplishments.
“That being said, you have to be in the right place at the right time, and right now the country is talking about income inequality, so he’ seizing an opportunity as it emerges, and sometimes that means you can’t wait until you’re more sure footed back home,” Morey said.
De Blasio, however, has a different take. He defended his national travels as a necessity to help get things done at home.
“We in New York are doing all we can but we cannot complete the mission without fundamental change in federal policy,” he said.
Former Vermont Governor and Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean said de Blazio should play a prominent role in the national discussion around progressive policies.
“De Blasio, I think, is a rising star in the Democratic Party and I think this is very helpful for the mayor of New York to take a lead role in organizing this,” he said.