President Barack Obama greets Gov. David Paterson before speaking about the economy at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy. (pool photo by Mike McMahon / The Record)
President Obama called New York's embattled governor a wonderful man -- a day after throwing him into a fight for his political career after it was leaked that the White House wants Paterson to stand down in the 2010 contest.
Obama's strongest praise was reserved for Paterson's chief rival for the job: state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Gov. David Paterson warmly greeted Obama when the president flew to upstate New York on Monday to speak at a community college. Obama returned the favor, telling the audience: "A wonderful man, the governor of the great state of New York, David Paterson, is in the house."
But he stopped short of commenting on the political flap of the previous days.
Some Democrats fear Paterson's low approval ratings will cost their party a chance to hold the seat and hurt other Democrats on the ballot. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn't say whether the president ordered that word be sent to Paterson that Obama does not want him to run in 2010.
The embattled governor was subdued Monday before the economic address.
Obama also introduced Attorney General Andrew Cuomo as a close ally and joked with the hard-charging, headline-grabbing man calling him "your shy and retiring attorney general."
"Andrew's doing great work enforcing the laws that need to be enforced," Obama said as he cast a warm smile toward Cuomo and the two made eye contact. Obama didn't look at Paterson in his introduction.
"I think that you would have to be pretty dense not to get the message,'' said Doug Muzzio, a politics professor at New York City's Baruch College, who viewed video of the event afterward. If Paterson doesn't run, it helps pave a Democratic nomination for Cuomo.
Paterson was lieutenant governor under Democrat Eliot Spitzer and ascended in March 2008 after Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal. His popularity has plunged and the state's economic situation has sharply deteriorated.
With a 20 percent approval rating in a recent poll, some Democrats fear Paterson will hurt the ticket in 2010 -- when Democrats are nervous about midterm losses in the House and Senate. Paterson has refused to step aside.
The president's aides insisted Monday that Obama wasn't interfering with New York politics. Before Obama landed, spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn't answer directly when asked whether the president ordered that word be sent to Paterson that he does not want him to seek re-election.
"Well, look, I think everybody understands the tough jobs that every elected official has right now in addressing many of the problems that we have, and I think people are aware of the tough situation that the governor of New York is in," Gibbs told reporters aboard the president's plane. "And I wouldn't add a lot to what you've read, except this is a decision that he's going to make."
While Paterson had already heard rumblings from the Obama team, the conversation changed on Friday night when it became clear the message was coming from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Paterson seemed to get the message during the dinner, according to the source, but has since dug in his heels as embarrassing news of the conversation leaked.
Meanwhile, on NBC's Today show Tuesday morning, former President Bill Clinton weighed in on Paterson's prospects.
"I think, first of all, the election's next year and he's not in good shape now," Clinton told Matt Lauer. "But I will say this about David Paterson. He is a good man. He has achieved a lot in his life. And the people who really know him tend to really like him... I think that he will do in the end what he believes is best for New York and I think we should trust him to do that. I trust him to do that and I believe that if he believes he has a reasonable chance to win, I think he'll probably run. If he thinks that he, chances are one in 10 or worse, I think he probably won't. But that's up to [him], I think he'll decide and he'll make a good decision.