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Cuomo’s Presidential Moment Forms Contrast With Obama

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York had help in securing passage of the bill that will provide for equal treatment of same-sex couples under New York’s marriage law. Public opinion on the issue is shifting rapidly: 58 percent of New Yorkers support same-sex marriage today compared with 37 percent in 2004. Many allies were at work on the cause, from gay rights groups to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to the pop star Lady Gaga, who at a concert in Buffalo urged her fans to lobby the freshman State Senator Mark J. Grisanti, a Republican, to vote for the bill. (Mr. Gristani, initially considered a strong “no” vote, was one of four Republicans to support the measure.)

A more subtle factor: addition by subtraction. Among the 14 senators who have been replaced in the chamber since the New York State Senate last voted on marriage in 2009 were 4 Democrats who had voted against it. This time around, every first-term Democrat — and one rookie Republican, Mr. Grisanti — voted for the bill.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the accomplishment, particularly after reading my colleague Michael Barbaro’s article on the work Mr. Cuomo did behind the scenes. Six senators who had voted against the bill in 2009 voted for it on Friday night, including three Republicans. Black and Hispanic members of the Senate, whose constituents sometimes have more tepid feelings toward gay rights, voted for the bill by a 13-1 margin despite the vocal opposition of Senator Rubén Díaz Sr. of the Bronx. The Republican majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, decided to bring the bill to the floor, something he did not have to do.

I’m generally of the view that individual politicians receive both more credit and more blame than they deserve, with legislative and electoral outcomes usually determined by broad cultural, economic and political undercurrents. But the type of leadership that Mr. Cuomo exercised — setting a lofty goal, refusing to take no for an answer and using every tool at his disposal to achieve it — is reminiscent of the stories sometimes told about with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had perhaps the most impressive record of legislative accomplishment of any recent president.

It’s also a brand of leadership that many Democrats I speak with feel is lacking in President Obama.

Mr. Obama has some considerable achievements, including his health care bill and the reversal of the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers. But he often seems to achieve them by outsourcing much of the work to Democrats in Congress or to his various lieutenants. And his considerable speaking abilities sometimes seem to be directed more toward healing the country in times of crisis than toward persuading it to move in a new direction.

It’s a strategy that Mr. Obama’s critics and admirers have sometimes characterized as “leading from behind.” One could rightly argue that being president of the United States is an order of magnitude more difficult than being governor of New York, and that Mr. Obama’s performance has been fair to good under the circumstances. But his seemingly risk-averse approach roils many Democrats, even as most of them approve of his overall performance.

That Mr. Cuomo’s accomplishment pertains to same-sex marriage, an issue on which Mr. Obama has adopted an indecipherable position born of a cynical-seeming political calculus, makes the contrast sharper. And that it involved achieving cooperation from Republicans, something Mr. Obama has rarely received, makes it seem as though Mr. Cuomo has more effectively executed upon Mr. Obama’s “theory of change” than the president himself, demonstrating that articulating clear and unapologetic goals is not incompatible with persuading votes on the margins.

Whoever is the Democratic nominee in 2016, he or she will almost certainly endorse same-sex marriage, as about two-thirds of Democratic voters already do. But it’s unlikely that any of them will be able to better Mr. Cuomo’s accomplishment. Particularly if Mr. Obama loses next year, Mr. Cuomo’s approach toward leadership is one that many Democratic voters will have an appetite for.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.