If there was any doubt remaining over whether Bill de Blasio would shrink from his populist rhetoric once he became mayor of New York City, his inauguration Wednesday should erase it—at least for now.
As de Blasio made the official transition from campaigning to governing, a parade of progressive voices lashed into the term of outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg during the ceremony. Even if he wasn't always mentioned specifically, speaker after speaker had sharp words for the inequality of Bloomberg's New York. Singer and activist Harry Belafonte said de Blasio "would not let this city remain a community divided.” New public advocate Letitia James held the hand of Dasani Coates, the homeless girl featured in a widely read New York Times series, and said that a "growing gap between the haves and the have-nots undermines our city and tears at the fabric of our democracy."
And of course, de Blasio himself had some fervent words about the issue. "We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love," he said in his inauguration speech. He called to mind the Occupy Wall Street movement, saying he would expand community health centers "so that New Yorkers see our city not as the exclusive domain of the One Percent, but a place where everyday people can afford to live, work, and raise a family."
The unabashedly liberal tone of de Blasio's inauguration was notable not just for the politics it forecasts, but for what it seems to say about how he intends to lead. While some politicians choose an open-arms approach to the start of their tenure (recall President Obama's 2008 victory speech, when he said to conservatives "I will be your president, too"), de Blasio's message was stridently liberal. He appears unafraid to anger his opposition, unabashed at being at the center of a resurgent liberal movement, and fairly uncompromising in his positions.
"I know there are those who think that what I said during the campaign was just rhetoric, just 'political talk' in the interest of getting elected," de Blasio said in his speech. "So let me be clear. When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it."
Actually doing that, of course, will be a challenge. De Blasio is already behind his predecessors, the Times reports, in putting together the ranks of senior staff who will help him manage the complex and sprawling metropolis. That's perhaps a sign of deliberateness, but it will have to change quickly if he's to get going on the vast priorities on his agenda. He'll be dependent on the success of the NYPD, where he has installed police legend Bill Bratton, to fulfill his stop-and-frisk reforms. And promises like the creation of more affordable housing are subject to economic realities and a powerful real estate industry that may be beyond his control.
Is it better for a new leader to make big promises, rebuke his predecessors and double down on his promises? Or is it better to start a time in power by extending an olive branch or two, setting realistic expectations and then surprising people by exceeding them?
Both have their merits, and Bill de Blasio has chosen the former. It could be the start of a principled, unwaveringly progressive era for New York that brings needed change to issues of poverty, homelessness and crime. Or it could be the dawn of a contentious tenure where pragmatism loses out. Only time will tell.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.