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President Trump has been very busy this weekend in Florida. On Friday, he honored Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon, with a second proper presidential farewell and send-off, as he had done for Ambassador Nikki Haley. Earlier in the day, he appeared with Florida officials and the Corps of Engineers on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, highlighting an important infrastructure project.
Lake Okeechobee is a large freshwater lake described as the heart or the kidney of Florida. It is girded by a dike system, which has been in long-standing need of repair. The US Army Corps of Engineers has federal responsibility, as with other large waterways.
The first embankments around Lake Okeechobee were constructed by local interest from sand and muck, circa 1915. Hurricane tides overtopped the original embankments in 1926 and 1928, resulting in over 2,500 deaths.
The River and Harbors Act of 1930 authorized the construction of 67.8 miles of levee along the south shore of the lake and 15.7 miles along the north shore. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the levees between 1932 and 1938.
A major hurricane in 1947 prompted the need for additional flood and storm damage reduction work. As a result, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1948 authorizing the first phase of the Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project, a comprehensive plan to provide flood and storm damage reduction and other water control benefits in central & south Florida. The new dike system was completed in the late 1960’s and named the Herbert Hoover Dike.
As with so many projects, there have been delays of many years in the proposed and needed improvements. This problem is right in President Trump’s wheelhouse. Look back to his first brush with public infrastructure, the Wollman Rink.
This was a beloved public ice skating rink in New York City which had fallen into serious disrepair. In 1980, the NYC Parks Department promised to fix the Wollman Rink, but in 1986 it was still unusable.
Having fallen into utter disrepair during the New York City fiscal crisis, unable to make ice, the city’s Parks Department embarked on a total refurbishment of the facility in 1980, estimating it would take two years to complete. After six years and having flushed $13 million down the drain, the city announced they would have to start all over again and it would another two years to complete. Wollman Rink had quite visibly failed. The Wollman Rink fiasco amplified the public perception of the general incompetence of government and their inability to complete even the simplest projects.
Donald J. Trump could not abide this and stepped up to solve the problem quickly. Trump publicly offered to take over the project for free and get the rink back into operation in time for the 1986 Christmas season. Instead of being grateful, Mayor Ed Koch and his fellow politicians made themselves look even worse in the public eye. What followed was an object lesson reinforcing Reagan’s take on government and the free market. Trump triumphed and the public benefitted.
A very public Trump-Koch feud ensued; Donald ultimately prevailed taking on the responsibility to finish the rink in less than six months for no more than $3 million. The city politicos could only hope that when Donald failed it would divert attention from their own incompetence.
Instead of failing, Trump finished the job in just four months at a final cost 25% below the budget.
The New York Times gave us the facts, although served up with snark:
Donald J. Trump refurbished the Central Park -skating rink two and a half months ahead of his own speedy six-month schedule and $750,000 below his own projected $3 million budget, having taken over the project after the city spent six years and $12 million unsuccessfully trying to get the job done.
”He built the most fabulous rink I have ever seen,” said Vera Banchet, watching her daughter skate. ”I saw Trump on TV again last night. If I may say so, he is not one to hide his light under a bushel.”
Well yes, Donald J. Trump is in the business of self-promotion, as are politicians. The difference shown in 1986 was that career politicians will harm the public interest to serve their own egos, whereas Trump identified an opportunity to do well for himself by doing good for others. The public understood and appreciated this, as the Times reported:
”I don’t really care about Trump’s ego or the attention he’s grabbing,” said George Rinaldi, a skater at the rink, who echoed the sentiments of many others. ”It’s a great rink and he is a great man. Anybody who can get anything done right and done on time in New York is a bona fide hero. He should get a ticker-tape parade.”
Skaters yesterday stopped to profusely thank Mr. Trump. They asked if he was going to skate. ”No thanks,” the flamboyant developer said. ”There are too many people who would like to see me fall on my rear end.”
And so it has ever been. This weekend, now President Trump stood with public officials and proclaimed the decades of delay are ended and the money has been found to make required repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike. Governor DeSantis (who is riding a wave of cross-party public approval), Senator Rick Scott (the former governor), and Senator Marco Rubio, led the state delegation praising the president’s aggressive action to get the infrastructure project done.
The name of the lake should be familiar to all Americans, but its importance to Florida may not be so well known. It is at the heart of the natural waterways that radiate out to the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Okeechobee is a center of agriculture, recreation, and tourism.
The president led off by naming and praising both state and federal elected officials, as is his wont. He did so even with Senator Rubio, who voted against his national emergency declaration. Here, again, we see the narrative of “petulant, uncontrolled” Trump contradicted. Little Marco got praised, then invited to speak, then had to nod his head for the cameras as the Democrats media arm could not help themselves and served up a chance for the president to forcefully substantiate that there is a real crisis on our southern border.
President Trump, like President Reagan, knows the use of a great visual backdrop. He was able to play on his decades-long theme of getting infrastructure done, shoring up support in a key battleground state, and tying “fix the dike” to “fix the border.” Both now involve the Army Corps of Engineers. One involves stopping floods of water, the other is to stop floods of illegal aliens.
The press obliged by firing off the usual hostile questions. President Trump used the occasion to serve up his strongest statement so far on the border. The president did not say a word against Marco Rubio, but Rubio’s head went down, only to nod in agreement when he had to.
The president also postured the healthcare issue as an economic and access disaster that will be fixed by his party. This was the last question he took on the fly, stopping, turning into the cameras as the press was being herded away. “Republicans will become the party of healthcare.” This could be good or bad, but if any president is going to get it right, it will be this one.
What did the small community where he visited have to say? “Thank you for being willing to try. Thank you for loving America.” Congratulations on local news being real reporters, in contrast to the braying press pack that treats this president so differently than they did the last president.