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The Mayor Trap

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The Mayor Trap

Trump must avoid the temptation to micromanage individual infrastructure and economic projects—like the Carrier deal. November 30, 2016
Economy, finance, and budgets
Politics and law

Donald Trump hasn’t even taken office yet and he’s already fulfilled a campaign promise. This week, he struck a deal to save 1,000 jobs at a Carrier air-conditioner factory in Indianapolis, Indiana. This factory became a campaign issue when a leaked video showed management announcing that the plant would close and move to Mexico, with 1,400 unionized American workers losing their jobs. The deal gives a glimpse of Trump’s potential governing style—a style shaped by his professional background as a New York City real-estate developer.

Trump thinks big and is a master of complex deal-making. He has a project orientation, seeks to maximize his PR value, focuses on brand-building and increasing brand value, and boasts of his cost efficiency and operational excellence. Trump really did save that late, mismanaged, and over-budget Wollman Rink project in Central Park, finishing in mere months a renovation that had dragged on for four years. He really did spend far less than both his primary opponents and Hillary Clinton during the election. And now he really has cut a deal to save Carrier. “Trump buildings are extremely well managed. Like it or not, he does a good job,” the head of a real-estate brokerage told Crain’s New York.  

The challenge for Trump is that this operational orientation translates imperfectly to the presidency. Trump may have run a large business empire, but it’s small enough—even now—for him personally to oversee deals and projects. The presidency isn’t like that. There’s no way he can govern effectively by involving himself in deals relating to individual factories or infrastructure projects.

Abandoning this successful style will be a challenge for Trump. He’ll need to be strategic about which “deals” he chooses to oversee himself as president. The Carrier agreement was high-visibility and it fulfilled a campaign promise, making it a perfect example of the kind of deal Trump should involve himself in. Because Carrier’s parent company is a large defense contractor, Trump had leverage. His running mate, Mike Pence, is still governor of Indiana, and thus had a governor’s economic-development tools to work with. Above all, the Carrier deal sends a powerful message to corporate America: there’s a new sheriff in town. Still, it can’t be the norm. Instead, Trump needs to think bigger, focusing on transformative agreements—renegotiating unfavorable trade deals, getting legislation through Congress, adjusting relations with foreign governments—that affect the larger economy.

Trump should also apply his brand-building skill to the American economy. “Brand USA” needs to encompass more than just post-industrial services like tech and finance. How can Trump make the United States an aspirational brand for middle-class employers? Branding is critical. It’s not just about the product. Marketing matters, too, and Trump is a master marketer. He built his business empire as a luxury brand, then demonstrated his prowess by running a successful political campaign with a working-class brand. Trump knows that the United States badly needs a “brand lift,” and this may be the first time that the country has had a brand builder as president. There are real opportunities here.

Infrastructure should also have great appeal to Trump. He already understands the value of physical structures like Trump Tower to his personal and business brand. The Wollman Rink project formed a key part of his legend. Publicly financed buildings and structures often have a plaque attached with the names of all the elected and appointed officials involved in their construction. There are still buildings with WPA markers on them, for example. A vast number of public works projects in America with “Donald J. Trump, President of the United States” on them would give him a legacy etched in concrete and steel.

Again, Trump needs to be strategic. He can’t treat infrastructure like a bunch of Wollman Rink projects. He should pick a few high-profile and high-visibility projects to push through as personal priorities. The Gateway Tunnel beneath the Hudson River and the water-system rebuild in Flint, Michigan, come immediately to mind. Beyond that, he needs to crack the code on America’s dysfunctional infrastructure system, which too often chooses the wrong projects to build or repair, and then—as with Wollman Rink—weighs them down with vast delays and inflated costs. The good news is that we still know how to build things quickly. After the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, its replacement opened 18 months later. That should be the model for all replacement and maintenance projects. 

While President Trump may be able to push individual infrastructure projects over the finish line through force of will, our national infrastructure-building strategy requires substantial reform. The notion of “systems change” is not a part of his developer’s DNA. He will need to adjust.  Unfortunately, Trump’s choice of Elaine Chao for Transportation secretary doesn’t suggest that he has reform in mind.

In short, Trump’s background is a good but uneven fit for the Oval Office. Though his Carrier deal can be justly celebrated, Trump can’t allow himself to get so distracted by ribbon-cutting and deal making that he starts acting like a governor or mayor instead of the president of the United States.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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