For presidents and politics, geography still matters
© Getty Images

In recent years, I have enjoyed a front-row seat to several American presidents' comings and goings by coincidentally following their migratory paths.

Former Arizona Republic automobile editor Lyle Abbott coined the term "motorcade" to keep pace with the times and technologies once "cavalcade" ceased to apply. Any Washingtonian knows motorcades zoom through the city streets regularly. At worst, they are an occasional inconvenience. At best, they offer ephemeral reminders of what a special city the District of Columbia is, where local news makes international waves.

While working in both Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, D.C. was home. Certainly there were differences in policy priorities between these two eras, but when it came to vehicles processing through our streets, Beltway neighbors saw zero daylight between the two presidents. Even with heightened security in the wake of 9/11, the line of vehicles swiftly conveying Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney felt the same as those into which Clinton and Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreCybersecurity of our nuclear systems needs to be a top priority Dem introduces bills to eliminate Electoral College, stop presidents from pardoning themselves Al Gore’s right about carbon capture and sequestration MORE were safely tucked and carried.

The Capital Region is notorious for its traffic snarls, and yet Honolulu handily thumps Washington in Tomtom's annual Traffic Index, a ranking of major cities according to the extra travel time resulting from daily congestion. The island of O'ahu has few major highways, aptly named the H-1, H-2 and H-3. (Why they are called "interstates" remains a mystery to this mainland transplant.)

ADVERTISEMENT

Almost 5,000 miles away on O'ahu, where President Obama grew up and enjoys annual winter escapes, life feels wildly different from the D.C. pressure and pace. When on-island, the first family embraces the aloha spirit, stunning ridge hikes and azure waters. Near-daily rainbows compel us all to slow down and take notice.

 

Sensitive to island realities, the Obamas have consistently tread lightly during their visits in order to not disrupt the flow of local life. They rent a home in beautiful Kailua on the windward side of the island, rather than at one of Waikiki's high-rise luxury hotels. They may enjoy a dinner out or a shave ice pilgrimage, but beach outings or morning workouts remain cloistered at Bellows Field Beach Park or Marine Corps Base Hawai'i.

The New York City block that is home to today's transition parade is also familiar, mere blocks from my old office within a former presidential home. President Franklin Roosevelt mounted his own transition from his East 65th Street double townhouse that was elegant and stately, in no way gilded or glitzy. At the City University of New York's Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, we benefited from former neighbors and Hunter College students popping in to share stories of Franklin Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, inviting them for teas and discussions of issues of the day.

Certainly, we live in different times, but the Roosevelts' example stands in stark contrast from the $35 million price tag estimated for security provided throughout the president-elect's transition, or the disruption of local business with the injection of security barriers, law enforcement and gawkers.

Uncertainty remains regarding Trump and his family's plans to split time between New York and Washington, but even initial estimates based on the recent weeks' transition security demonstrate that doing so will cost American taxpayers substantially.

Our world is dramatically more interconnected with information and communication technologies, but geography is not dead. Even if today's professional collaborations or friendships take place across borders and time zones, we all still live our lives somewhere.

Is your neighbor one from whom you can borrow that cup of sugar or who keeps you up at all hours with racket? For how divisive November's election was, it is important now, more than ever, to truly listen to and better understand our neighbors.

It may be easy to avert our eyes from the world around us, particularly when the Pavlovian ping of the latest message or tweet sucks us back into our ever-growing electronic world. Nonetheless, raising our heads to observe today's dynamic global landscape reminds us that issues of trade, security and the environment, among others, require a grounded understanding of geography and public policy.

Today the world is left deciphering disembodied tweets out of Trump Tower, trying to discern what lies ahead for public policy in a Trump administration. There is much we do not yet know, but past performance indicates a 45th president who celebrates spectacle and acts on impulse.

As we read tea leaves for a Trump presidency and America's role in the world moving forward, how one understands and relates to the surrounding community offers clues. Surely someone who prides himself on building "big, beautiful" things must understand the importance of place.

My sincere hope is for our president-elect to resist the urge to tweet long enough to consider how his decisions impact the world around him, whether in his immediate neighborhood or on the other side of the globe.

Terry Babcock-Lumish is an economic geographer and president of Islay Consulting. Previously, she served as the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute's founding director of public policy. She currently resides in Honolulu.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.