Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are reeling from a train derailment and chemical spill that poisoned their water, soil and air.
But the uneven response of President Joe Biden and his administration to the health, environmental and economic disaster may have undermined the president’s reputation for compassion and competence.
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The response to the derailment by Biden and his administration, particularly the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency, has been “pathetic,” according to Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. the House, which oversees the EPA.
“It took 20 days for the transportation secretary to visit the site of the derailment, and the president of the United States has yet to address the citizens of East Palestine,” Weber told the Washington Examiner. “The American people deserve the basic support, not to mention more responsive and timely assistance, from the federal government that their taxpayer dollars pay for.”
This tragedy has created a severe environmental disaster that has affected thousands of people, added Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), another energy and commerce Republican.
“[Transportation] secretary [Pete] Buttigieg should have been personally on the scene to investigate the harm and risks to Americans quickly,” he said. “Instead, the Biden administration’s message to the residents of East Palestine is: ‘You are for your account”.
Residents of eastern Palestine are struggling with perceived “government indifference,” said David Cohen, director of the applied politics program at the nearby University of Akron.
“And perception is a reality in politics,” he said. “Part of the job of a president, any president, is to be the ‘comforter in chief’ and go to places where disaster or tragedy has occurred and look people in the eye and let them know you feel them and you care.”
Indeed, Biden campaigned on this exact character trait in 2020, encouraging comparisons between himself and former President Donald Trump amid a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
“Him going there would change absolutely nothing in terms of aid or federal aid, but it’s important symbolically,” Cohen said of Biden. “This should have been a quick and easy decision to get POTUS on Air Force One and on the ground within days. Someone on the team cracked it because it really is Presidential Disaster Management 101.”
White House staff have similarly been criticized for not earlier advising Biden to deal with, say, the Chinese spy balloon, waiting until pressure had mounted before arranging for the president to formally speak about the ‘subject.
For Republican strategist Douglas Heye, Biden should still travel to East Palestine, despite the fact that his cabinet officials, specifically Buttigieg and EPA Administrator Michael Regan, have “boxed” him with their answers to the derailment
“Part of that goes against what Biden’s core promise was, which was essentially, ‘I’m a professional and I’m going to hire professionals, unlike Donald Trump and the Addams family staff he brought in,'” he said .” These are the menders; the president is not the fixer.”
Heye brushed off criticism of Biden’s trip to Europe on the first anniversary of Russia’s war in Ukraine, but the former Republican National Committee communications director had concerns about how the president would be received in East Palestine after Mayor Trent Conaway called it “a slap in the face.” .”
“Because this has gone on for so long, it’s put Biden in a very difficult position,” Heye said. “If he doesn’t go, that’s a problem. If he goes, he could be in trouble.”
Buttigieg, who is believed to still harbor presidential aspirations after his failed campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination, has come under particular scrutiny for his response, touring eastern Palestine last Thursday, nearly three weeks after the derailment.
“First, it was ‘happens all the time’; then, in less than 24 hours, Buttigieg went from ‘Trust me, I was mayor’ to ‘planning to come’ to ‘could have spoken earlier’ to ‘follow the It’s normal’ to ‘take some personal time’ to announce a visit to Ohio,” RNC spokesman Jake Schneider told reporters this week. “Of course, Buttigieg is not alone in his failure to act. Biden’s first public comments, in the form of a tweet almost certainly sent by his staff, came 18 days after it happened.”
Buttigieg has also come under pressure from Democrats, including the Campaign Committee for Progressive Change, who have urged him to restore old Obama-era rail safety regulations and hold “greedy transportation corporations accountable for putting profits over safety.”
The White House has defended its “robust” “multi-agency” response to the derailment, detailing Friday’s trips to Virginia Beach, Virginia and Baltimore next week, but not to eastern Palestine. Biden himself told reporters on the South Lawn on Friday that he would not be going to East Palestine “at this time.”
“The idea that we’re not engaged just isn’t there,” he said. “At first there was no request for him to leave even before we went to Kiev. So I’m watching it very closely. We’re doing everything we can.”
At the same time, the White House and the Democratic National Committee have argued that Trump dismantled transportation and environmental safety rules. Trump traveled to East Palestine last Wednesday.
“Congressional Republicans and former Trump administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled the Obama-Biden rail safety protections, as well as EPA’s powers to quickly contain spills,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said this week. . “Republicans in Congress laid the groundwork for the Trump administration to destroy requirements for more effective train brakes, and last year a majority of House Republicans wanted to defund our ability to protect drinking water.” .
“There’s only one way to show that they’re finally rejecting their long history of handing over the railroad industry at the expense of communities like East Palestine: work across the aisle with us to put the Obama-Biden protections back in place in place and going beyond. , even with higher fines for rail pollution and adequately equipping the EPA,” Bates added.
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Biden was briefed again on Friday by Regan, Buttigieg, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell about the derailment.