THE BLOG
05/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whither Mayor Bloomberg?

It was a story with a headline that didn't promise much excitement: "Bloomberg is Quietly Ending a Charitable Program," announced the Times.

The news was that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is going to stop his practice of giving tens of millions of dollars a year to the Carnegie Corporation, which spread it out in sort-of-anonymous donations to small city community and cultural organizations. The mayor has spent nearly $200 million on the program since he took office.

Now, the spigot is being turned off. Sorry, local museums, small theaters, neighborhood support groups. Would you like to sign up for a Bloomberg-funded program on how to improve your fund-raising techniques?

Bloomberg has always used his staggering wealth to win friends for his political career. Opponents have complained, cynics had joked. But for the most part, New Yorkers saw it as a pleasant side benefit to his mayoralty. What should we make of the change?

The first obvious question is whether Bloomberg, having gotten one more term as mayor than the law actually allowed last November, has lost interest in the city now that it has no more electoral triumphs to offer.

If so, we're offended. Although you have to give New York credit - when we got bought, we didn't come cheap.

Maybe there was a larger plan. Bloomberg-watchers couldn't have missed the remark, buried in the middle of the Times story by Michael Barbaro, that the mayor was planning to put greater charitable emphasis on the "needs of the United States."

Is he running for president in 2012?

The shift in charitable giving follows a recent announcement that Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg's longtime deputy and political alter ego, was leaving the administration to go to work for Bloomberg LP - the place from which the mayor came and will presumably return when he leaves office. (Howard Wolfson, the political consultant who worked on both the last mayoral campaign and Hillary Clinton's presidential run, has taken his place as deputy mayor.)

As far as we're concerned, it doesn't necessarily matter. Neither option feels like good news for the city. If the mayor, having won what he can win, is simply embarking on a slow, four-year retreat to the private world that's bad. We want him on the job, hungry, avid, focused, until the bitter end.

A presidential campaign just means a faster shift of attention. Bloomberg thought seriously about it last time around. Sheekey pushed the idea hard. In the end, the mayor gave it up, reasonably, because there wasn't a chance. The nation wasn't yearning for a third party non-crazy version of Ross Perot, offering an alternative to the status quo. They already had Mr. Change on the Democratic side and Mr. Maverick on the Republican.

As of right now, 2012 looks different. Maybe we'll have the President versus a Tea Party favorite - Mr. Inside vs. Ms. Off the Wall. There would certainly be more room for a truth-telling anti-deficit businessman with a liberal social profile and a national political name.

(Bloomberg wasted little time in throwing Obama under the bus on the question of a 9/11 terror trial in New York City. After initially praising and encouraging the idea, the mayor did a 180 and began musing about the virtues of a military base for the trial.)

Whether Michael Bloomberg has the message or charisma to pull off a credible presidential run is a question for another day.

For now, our major interest should be what it means for the city. The Bloomberg money is flowing elsewhere. (Regional dance troupes in swing states must already be on the phone.) Is the Bloomberg interest going to follow? If Mike has serious national ambitions, he's going to have to spend a whole lot more time worrying about the national budget crisis, instead of the city's.

Color me selfish, but I'm concerned.