There are different explanations for why Jimmy Carter’s presidency wasn’t a success, but one of the principle criticisms of the Georgia Democrat was his micromanaging tendencies. So much of the American presidency is about delegating and making sound judgments about what matters and what doesn’t. It was a part of the job Carter famously struggled with.
This came to mind reading the Washington Post’s new report on Donald Trump giving his team hyper-specific directives on the details of the administration’s new border fencing.
The barrier that President Trump wants to build along the Mexico border will be a steel bollard fence, not a concrete wall as he long promised, and the president is fine with that. He has a few other things he would like to change, though.
The bollards, or “slats,” as he prefers to call them, should be painted “flat black,” a dark hue that would absorb heat in the summer, making the metal too hot for climbers to scale, Trump has recently told White House aides, Homeland Security officials and military engineers.
The article paints an almost comical picture of an obsessed president, barking instructions about the color of the barriers. And the shape of their tips. And their height. And what they should be called. And the number of gates. And the size of the gates. And the construction schedule. And “the minutiae of contracts.”
The Republican’s instructions haven’t just been delivered in some kind of White House memo. No, that would be too easy. Instead, Trump reportedly makes his wishes known over the course of multiple meetings and phone calls, including early-morning discussions with former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The Post added, “Trump often brought up the construction of the barrier at unrelated meetings, and aides learned to bring prep books – and even sketches – to address his questions.”
At a certain level, it may be tempting to see this as behind-the-scenes trivia. If the president wants to play make-believe, and he enjoys pretending to be an expert on border-barrier construction, perhaps there’s no harm in indulging him for a while. Indeed, if this keeps Trump busy, steering him away from areas in which he might do more harm, it might even be a good thing.
But it’s not quite that simple.
There are, for example, practical considerations to keep in mind. The Post article added that the president’s incessant micromanaging has led to “frequently shifting instructions and suggestions” that have in turn “left engineers and aides confused.”
The result is a project that’s likely to cost more. Given the fact that Trump is already taking legally dubious steps to spend money in defiance of Congress’ wishes, adding to the price tag doesn’t do the administration any favors.
But stepping back, there’s an even broader concern about Trump’s inability to be an effective president. To hear the White House tell it, there’s a complex crisis unfolding at the border, raising questions related to national security, asylum laws, and humanitarian interests. It would be difficult for even competent presidents to navigate the logistical and legal challenges.
The White House has experimented with a variety of policies, which haven’t exactly succeeded.
And yet, there’s Donald J. Trump, focusing his attention on paint colors and the shape of bollards.
More than two years into the job, the president hasn’t yet figured out how to tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t.
In the private sector, Trump used to brag about his attention to detail, devoting his time to things like choosing specific curtain colors and bathroom fixtures in hotel rooms. He’s apparently brought those same habits to the Oval Office.
That’s not good news.