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Obama praises David Paterson, whom he reportedly wants to see dumped in New York

September 21, 2009 | 10:21 am

When President Obama arrived in Troy, N.Y., he wanted to speak about the economy and innovation. But it was the same old confusion in Democratic Party politics that was the first item on the agenda.

Two days after a published report said that Obama had asked Gov. David Paterson not to seek a term in 2010, the president and the governor met and warmly greeted each other and shook hands.

As is his custom, Obama praised local officials at the start of his speech at the Hudson Valley Community College.

“First of all, a wonderful man, the governor of the great state of New York, David Paterson, is in the house,” Obama said, and clapped for the man he is said to want to dump.

Then Obama turned and added: “The shy and retiring Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is in the house!” Obama gave a big grin. “Andrew is  doing great work enforcing the laws that need to be enforced.”

It would appear all is well, but that would be missing the point about New York Democratic politics, which  often represent the famous cartoon of political figures standing in a circle and shooting at each other.

Obama finds himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to help get rid of an unpopular governor who is also one of the two African American governors in the nation. Paterson became governor in March 2008 when Eliot Spitzer was forced to step down because of a prostitution scandal.

Though Paterson is the scion of a prominent black Democratic family and served in the state Senate, polls show as many as seven out of 10 voters disapprove of his performance.

That in and of itself wouldn’t really be a problem in New York, where party line votes still hold sway. But a combination of election law, unhappiness with state officials in general and a resurgent GOP have put the state up for grabs.

Paterson would be on the ballot in 2010 at the same time as Sen. Charles Schumer, the most powerful Democrat in the state, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, seeking her first full term. Gillibrand was named by Paterson to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, who became Obama's to be secretary of state. Also on the ballot will be the the state Legislature, which had a summer meltdown, and all members of congressmen.

On the GOP side, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been making noises about getting back into politics, as has Rick Lazio, now a businessman who ran a credible race against Clinton.  So Democrats fear that they could get hurt in 2010.

Cuomo, the son of a former governor, is the logical heir and favorite of many Democrats if Paterson drops out.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Troy, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn’t answer directly when asked whether the president ordered that word be sent to Paterson that Obama does not want Paterson to seek re-election.

“Well, look, I think everybody understands the tough job 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 said. “And I wouldn’t add a lot to what you’ve read, except this is a decision that he’s going to make.”

“So you can’t say for the record whether the president has directed word to the governor saying, ‘I don’t want you to seek reelection?’” Gibbs was asked.

“Again,” Gibbs replied, “the president understands the tough job that everyone has and the pressure that they’re under.”

“Are there any risks for the president in dabbling in various states?” a reporter  asked. Obama recently went to a fundraiser for a newly minted Democrat, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Gibbs said it wasn’t unusual for the White House to be involved in state races. Asked whether there were any risks to such involvement, Gibbs answered: “The hazards of the job.”

– Michael Muskal