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How De Blasio’s Inauguration Hinted at Wider Implications

His focus on inequality is New York-centric. Will it be heard farther afield?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The inaugural festivities on New Year’s Day’s for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio felt awfully like an event of national import and impact. In one row next to the podium were two prospective presidential candidates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Ceremonially swearing in de Blasio (who was officially sworn in at midnight the night before) was a former president, Bill Clinton. In his address, de Blasio made gestures beyond the five boroughs, saying, “just like before, the world will watch us as we succeed.” De Blasio’s ascension is widely seen, as The New York Times reported, as crystallizing a more populist-progressive sentiment within the Democratic Party focused above all on inequality. (Hence, some say, the Clintons’ presence: They may be trying subtly to move left.) So much seemed to imply that this was not just some municipal event in some town.

And yet … it was! De Blasio isn’t the mayor of the United States of America. He got to where he is because fewer than 300,000 adults representing less than 50 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in one city decided to vote for him over a few other candidates one Tuesday in September. His job is to be the chief executive of a massive city of even more massively outsize importance. But he’s still just the mayor of New York.

This tension, between viewing the de Blasio phenomenon narrowly and viewing it broadly, is part of what has made it so fascinating over the past several months, and it will determine the kind of national attention it receives—and deserves—over the next few years, as we wend our way through a New York gubernatorial campaign, national midterm elections, and then a Democratic presidential primary.

Wednesday’s event drove home that de Blasio’s election really was something about which one might shrug, “Only in New York.” Singer Harry Belafonte, whose stridently left-wing activism has caused controversy at the national level, probably isn’t getting a prominent slot at the Democratic National Convention anytime soon, yet he opened the proceedings with a convocation that called the justice system presided over by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who sat, sour-faced, a few feet away—“Dickensian.” When de Blasio referred to “some on the far right [who] continue to preach the virtue of trickle-down economics,” it was impossible to figure out which actual politically relevant New Yorkers he was referring to.

Certainly inauguration day was Gotham to its core. It took place in extremely chilly weather—thoughtful blankets provided on each seat only accomplished so much—in front of New York’s City Hall, located just north of the Financial District, where the Brooklyn Bridge empties into Manhattan. Hung in front of the building was a big blue curtain with five flags I am not sure I had ever seen before, but which I soon realized were the flags of the five boroughs: A strikingly (and literally) provincial touch. Four clerics gave invocations, and indeed leave it to the rabbi to make the first joke of the day (something about how he wished the city had followed his people’s customs and done this “in Boca”).

But the other side of the de Blasio victory was also on display in several speeches. “I think the solution to what Americans want lies here in New York. We can become America’s DNA for the future,” said Belafonte. A “youth poet laureate” read some verses that contained the line, “This city will always be the foundation of this country.” Citing E.B. White’s description of New York as “a visible symbol of aspiration,” Stringer, who was seen during his primary as a relatively milquetoast establishment candidate who was forced leftward after Eliot Spitzer challenged him, concluded by endorsing de Blasio’s agenda and pointedly adding, “the country once again turns its eyes toward us today.” Tish James—probably more progressive than de Blasio—chimed in on the same theme, referring to “unique opportunities only a city as amazing as New York can offer.”

And then there was de Blasio himself. He said:

From Jacob Riis to Eleanor Roosevelt to Harry Belafonte—who we are so honored to have with us here today—it was New Yorkers who challenged the status quo, who blazed a trail of progressive reform and political action, who took on the elite, who stood up to say that social and economic justice will start here and will start now.

It’s that tradition that inspires the work we now begin. A movement that sees the inequality crisis we face today, and resolves that it will not define our future.

It’s that “city upon a hill” thing, going from John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan—who expanded it to the entire country—and now back to de Blasio (as well as one of the chaplains, who explicitly invoked the line), shrinking its boundaries back to the municipal level. At its most ambitious, in the eyes of both its practitioners and some of its observers (including myself), the de Blasio mayoralty offers the opportunity to preach and showcase the virtues of a frankly progressive agenda aimed at easing economic inequality—the most prominent example being de Blasio’s proposal to tax the wealthy to pay for universal pre-K—in order to convince Democrats and eventually the country that such an agenda is necessary nationally.

But, in the meantime, de Blasio wasn’t elected by the country. He was elected by a city that is about to get a foot of snow and is going to want an efficient city government to effectively manage that. All the rhetoric about inequalty will not make up for badly managing that

At a free, quite lovely reception afterward in heated tents behind City Hall, the provincial element was back on full display. Different dishes were served, gratis, to represent the different boroughs: ballpark pretzel sticks for the Bronx, home of Yankee Stadium; sesame noodles for Queens, whose Flushing neighborhood has in recent years been a huge mecca for East Asian immigrants; mini-bagels with “assorted smears” for Manhattan, because Jews; Junior’s Cheesecake for Brooklyn, because Jews; Italian heroes for Staten Island, because Italians. (Kosher meals, a sign noted, were available upon request.) As we follow de Blasio—and I believe we should—it is important to remember his specific priorities and prism. Those priorities and that prism may be useful for and applicable to the country, but they are not the same as the country’s. A case in point: At the reception, beverages offered were hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and water. But not just water: It was labeled, “New York City Tap Water.” Everyone here knows that it’s the best.