Presidential Insulation in the White House Garden

December 29th, 2016

Yesterday I blogged about a species of presidential maladministration I referred to as presidential insulation, which occurs an outgoing president takes executive action to prevent the incoming administration from reversing his polices. After writing the post, I thought of another example of presidential insulation–though it isn’t really by the President.

In October, Politico reported that the First Lady was taking steps to prevent a future administration from getting rid of her White House garden.:

First lady Michelle Obama is making sure that whoever inhabits the White House next doesn’t rip out her iconic vegetable garden — at least not without a big fuss.

On Wednesday afternoon, Obama unveiled a much bigger version of the garden, which uses cement, stone and steel to make it a more permanent fixture on the South Lawn. The updates are seen not just as preserving Obama’s garden — recognized globally as a symbol of local food — but also as a way to dissuade, say, a President Donald Trump from scrapping it the way Ronald Reagan tore out Jimmy Carter’s solar panels after he moved into the White House.

“I take great pride in knowing that this little garden will live on as a symbol of the hopes and dreams we all hold of growing a healthier nation for our children,” Obama said in an emotional speech Wednesday afternoon as she dedicated the garden before an audience of advocates, food industry leaders and others who have helped with Let’s Move!, her signature childhood obesity campaign.

“I am hopeful that future first families will cherish this garden like we have,” she added.

With all the uncertainty, however, it’s clear that the latest iteration of the first lady’s vegetable garden is built to last. Sawdust pathways have been widened and replaced with blue stone. The garden features a large new, stone-paved seating area and a prominent archway, cemented into the lawn.

Underneath, a large paving stone carries an inscription: “WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN GARDEN, established in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama with the hope of growing a healthier nation for our children.” …

The White House noted that the new structures incorporate both wood, chosen for “durability,” and steel — “combined to make the elements stronger bonded together than when they stand alone.” The wood includes pine and walnut harvested from the estates of founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr.

The first lady literally cemented her signature garden to prevent the next administration from uprooting it. Of course, all cement can be removed.

During a background briefing on the garden changes, White House officials were peppered with questions about whether the preservation actually prevents a future president from removing the legacy plot.

The short answer is no. “It is up to the next administration how they would like to manage the garden,” a White House official said, declining to answer the question directly. “The National Park Service will continue to maintain it.”

None of these changes, however, preclude the next administration from nixing the garden. It is the president’s home and he or she can do whatever the first family wishes, in consultation with the Secret Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts — and plenty of changes have been made over the years.

But historians like Pliska are quick to note that even in an intensely polarized political era, it’s actually exceedingly rare for a president to make a political statement with a change to the White House grounds. The removal of Carter’s solar panels stands out as a glaring example — and even then, they were removed quietly.

But this form of insulation makes it tougher to get rid of:

Neither presidential candidate, nor their spouses, have offered any indication of their intentions about the garden.

“If Trump were elected president, he’d probably dig up Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden in favor of a putting green,” joked a recent piece in the Miami New Times.

“I think people would be really upset,” said Marta McDowell, a landscape historian who recently wrote a book on White House gardens. She called Obama’s preservation plan “brilliant,” adding, “If it were taken out, it would truly just be a political statement.”

Before the election, President Obama apparently took that threat to heart, telling a talk radio show that he’s worried Trump would dig up Michelle’s garden.

Indeed, after the election, the New York Post reported that Michelle pushed her husband to issue an executive order to preserve her garden.

But she’s not stopping there — wielding the power she has over the president to ensure the Kitchen Garden is a permanent part of the White House.

“She is pressing him to pass an executive order to maintain the garden after they leave the White House,” a source told The Post.

Alas, even if true, what executive action giveth, it can taketh away. NY Mag opined:

Of course, even if the President did issue such an order, Trump could overturn it. So the only thing standing in the way of the garden’s destruction is some steel and the inevitable PR hit that would follow. Another thing working against the garden is that Trump eats like a 15-year-old. Unless someone quickly figures out a way to grow onion rings and burnt steaks, the president-elect is unlikely to feel much allegiance.

Ann Coulter offered the President-elect this advice: