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FAQ: What can an event in Albany say about Obama, Cuomo and upstate New York?

A conversation with Times Union political reporter Jimmy Vielkind about Barack Obama’s visit today to the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University of Albany, where he will be joined by Andrew Cuomo.

Josh: What are you looking and listening for, in particular, during the president’s visit?

Jimmy: How or whether he’ll point to New York’s government as an example for the nation. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, an upwardly mobile Democrat, is king of the political world here, and has managed to ram through a lot of his agenda with the (forced) acquiescence of Republicans. He has a true record of accomplishment and sky-high approval ratings to show for it. The biggest criticism is that he’s not transparent enough in his governing style. Will Obama laud that? Will he hold it up as a model, or as a foil for his own frustrations with a G.O.P.-controlled House of Representatives?

Josh: Wouldn’t it be a fairly serious breach of etiquette if Obama didn’t praise the Democratic governor of the state he’s visiting?

Jimmy: Oh, of course. But there’s a continuum, from damningly faint to you’re-a-life-model effusive.

Josh: Won’t it be more interesting, in a way, to look at what Cuomo says about Obama? He’s the one who has seemed at pains not to get any closer to the president than basic decorum requires.

Jimmy: We don’t even know if he’s going to speak—the governor’s aides didn’t say. Cuomo did say Monday that he would do whatever the Obama campaign asks him to do during the re-election campaign, which is a marked shift from his “I haven’t thought about it” answer just a week before.

But yes. If Cuomo does get behind the mic, will he talk about how the nation is reviving under Obama’s leadership, and call on Washington to fall in line behind him? Or will he focus on New York and what’s happened here? That will be a pretty significant tea-leaf moment.

Josh: You almost get the impression Cuomo regards this whole presidential race as a bit of an inconvenience, notwithstanding his stated excitement over this particular visit. I mean, you could say it’s remarkable that there’s even a question about whether he’s going to speak. It’s almost like he’s already thinking about the clip he’d be generating for a scary-voiceover ad in 2016 that says “ANDREW CUOMO ONCE CALLED BARACK OBAMA A ‘GREAT PRESIDENT.’” (He wouldn’t be the first ambitious Democrat to have such thoughts.)

Jimmy: I think it shows just how strategic Cuomo is about, well, everything. There’s what you mentioned. But there are also worries that the governor talks about, which I think have merit, about not being distracted from New York. A soaring speech moves him to a national stage when he’s not done with his agenda at home. He knows the dangers of peaking early (See: Cuomo, Mario Matthew) as a prospective presidential candidate so yes, this does put him in a bit of a spot. It kills a week of news coverage that the governor could otherwise dominate. It kills off the productivity of a week’s worth of legislating. As Hank Sheinkopf told me over the weekend, this is all good for Obama, and, well, I wouldn’t argue with your characterization that it’s “inconvenient” for Cuomo.

Josh: So what’s in this for Obama, with this visit? Ohio and Virginia are easy to explain. Why New York, and why now?

Jimmy: Let me be an unabashed booster of Upstate America for a moment: the Capital Region is at the leading edge for advanced manufacturing. It’s a model for how the rust belt (including swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania) can reinvent itself with advanced research and precision manufacturing — the stuff that can’t be outsourced to China. it’s why he came to nearby Schenectady in 2011, and my beloved Troy in 2009. Also, in this area, government is a big player. Obama will be visiting a research consortium that receives backing from the state and federal governments. He can argue that smart investments, like government made here, can be the way forward. He can rebut the Republican charge that government is always in the way of the private sector; here, top business officials say the cost of research is prohibitive, so this incubator model was necessary for its success.

Josh: Upstate America as an economic bellwether for real America? That almost sounds like you’re saying New York might play a relevant role in this year’s election, other than being a source of high-dollar donations.

Jimmy: Ever hopeful.

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