On Thursday, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the town of East Palestine, Ohio, for some much-needed damage control.
The catastrophic 3 February derailment of a nearby train carrying toxic chemicals sent a terrifying black cloud into the air as officials burned off the leaked materials. A swiftly escalating political crisis followed, as the Biden administration’s control of the narrative and credibility with the public also went off rails.
It took Secretary Buttigieg more than a week to speak out about the derailment at all, then another two weeks before he stepped foot in East Palestine.
In that time, conspiracy theories ran wild. Top Republicans called on Mr Buttigieg to resign, and Donald Trump paid the Ohio town a visit, handing out Trump-branded water bottles to crowds of supporters, speaking acidly about how the Biden administration had carried out a historic “betrayal.”
“They were doing nothing for you,” Mr Trump said at one point, adding, “Buttigieg should’ve been here already.”
When the Transportation Secretary arrived the following day, he apologised for the delay, but said he was following the norm by allowing the National Transportation Safety Board to be the most visible administration voice in the immediate aftermath. He also noted that federal officials were on the scene within hours.
Mr Buttigieg argued he was not going to play into the political theatre around the derailment.
“You can sense when you talk to local leaders, and local residents, that they’re getting pretty sick of politics and to this national, ideological layer that’s been added into all of this when they’re just trying to figure out if they’re going to be safe,” Mr Buttigieg told Politico, before hammering the Trump administration for cutting railway safety regulations.
“I heard him say he had nothing to do with it, even though it was in his administration,” the secretary continued. “If he had nothing to do with it, and they did it in his administration against his will, maybe he could come out and say that he supports us moving in a different direction. We’re not afraid to own our policies when it comes to raising the bar on regulation.”
Transit experts say that Mr Buttigieg, who has little experience managing mass transit and has never held an elected office higher than mayor of a small city in Indiana, has done a solid job at DOT, overseeing an important agency with roughly 55,000 employees and a budget of nearly $90bn.
In the process, he’s elevated what’s normally considered a fairly staid cabinet position to put himself at the centre of both policymaking and surrogacy for the administration at large. Though, in doing so, Mr Buttigieg has also opened himself to unrelenting partisan attacks as the country experiences transit crisis after transit crisis, from chaos at airports to lengthy backlogs in the international supply chain.
Michael J McCormick, a former top Federal Aviation Administration official and assistant professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told The Independent that he would give Mr Buttigieg an “A-” grade when it comes to policy.
“He’s done well in terms of consumer protection,” he said. “He’s done well in terms of infrastructure investments.”
Meanwhile, the former official continued, the secretary gets a failing grade when it comes to dealing with public perception.
“He just hasn’t been fast enough and assertive enough in terms of addressing public concerns around these areas,” Mr McCormick says. “Much of the criticisms that he gets is unjustified, but you have to expect that in partisan politics, and you have to be able to work around that.”
It may be how Mr Buttigieg handles the politics of these disasters, rather than the policy, that defines his tenure in the Biden administration and circumscribes his ambitions in Washington going forward.
If you were to believe Republicans, Pete Buttigieg single-handedly caused the Norfolk Southern train to derail in East Palestine and every other transit crisis that has struck in recent years.
Earlier this month, Senator Marco Rubio wrote a scathing letter to president Biden, arguing Mr Buttigieg had shown “a gross level of incompetence and apathy that is detrimental to the safety and prosperity of the American people.”
“For two years, Secretary Buttigieg downplayed and ignored crisis after crisis, while prioritizing topics of little relevance to our nation’s transportation system,” the Florida Republican said. “It is painfully clear to the American people that Secretary Buttigieg has little regard for the duties of the Secretary of Transportation.”
But the problems with the US rail system that may have influenced the Ohio train disaster well predate Mr Buttigieg.
The Trump administration gave rail companies permission to reduce manual inspections, blocked expanded staffing requirements and shelved an Obama-era rule that would’ve required faster and more modern braking systems on some trains carrying highly flammable materials, though this rule wouldn’t have applied regardless on the train in East Palestine, according to NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy.
Meanwhile, rail companies pushed for ways to string ever-longer trains on tighter schedules with fewer crew members and safety requirements.
In East Palestine, Mr Buttigieg called on Congress to “untie our hands” and allow DOT to reinstate heightened breaking rules and strengthen other regulations, but the Biden White House put its own limits on the safety conversation.
In December, the Biden administration threw its weight behind a deal that prevented a strike from railway workers, many of whom were intending to protest safety and staffing conditions on the nation’s railroads as a key issue.
“Railroad workers are being asked to do more work, with fewer people, faster,” Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United in Iowa, told The Independent last year.
Despite the flack Mr Buttigieg has received, its something of a political miracle we’re talking about the Department of Transportation at all.
In past administrations, the Transportation Secretary has been viewed more as a political horse to trade, a post to give to a member of the opposite party to burnish a bipartisan reputation, such as Barack Obama appointing Republican congressman Ray LaHood.
Much of the agency’s work comes through giving out funding via Highway Trust Fund and Airport Improvement Program, which states are relatively free to put towards their own purposes. Transportation isn’t the kind of presidential launching post that being vice-president or Secretary of State might be. Sometimes, it seems more like a super-sized grantmaking body.
Not so with Mr Buttigieg, who presided over a transit system rocked by Covid, and has been a nation-crossing spokesperson for the Biden administration’s landmark $1 trillion in new funding for infrastructure
Dr Kevin Heaslip, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, told The Independent he thinks “the secretary has done an admirable job elevating the department as a whole within the government.”
“In the past the secretary has been an appointee that may be from the opposite party or may not be seen as one of the more important parts of the cabinet. I think certainly during Secretary Buttigieg’s tenure, that has not been the case. He has been out front on many issues,” he said.
Managing the implementation of the law, Dr Heaslip says, not only requires a “bigger lift than any transportation secretary in recent memory,” but will also be the “legacy of this administration.”
Nonetheless, it can seem like the entire US transit system is falling apart all around us.
At the end of 2022, Southwest airlines canceled roughly 15,000 flights, capping off a year of numerous flight delays and cancellations across the airline industry.
Professor McCormick, the former FAA official, says the Covid pandemic was the main culprit.
“When demand started to come back for the airlines, it was to non-historical places during non-historical times,” Mr McCormick said. “Especially for the fact they were leisure travelers not business travelers. This is from the latent demand that built up over the pandemic. People wanted to get out and travel again.”
For airlines that weren’t prepared for this realignment, the result was pure chaos. Again, the blame fell on Mr Buttigieg, coming from the left and the right.
“Instead of focusing on real transportation issues, SecretaryPete and his minions have focused on woke garbage,” Arizona GOP congressman Andy Biggs wrote on Twitter on January, referencing the FAA’s decision under the Biden administration to rename the “Notice to Airmen” system to the less gendered “Notice to Air Missions.”
Nina Turner, a senior fellow at the New School’s Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy, wrote on Twitter in January: “What’s happening with the railroads, airlines and the supply chain is a result of a small city mayor being made the Secretary of Transportation as a means to pad his resume for President.”
That’s not quite fair, according to Dr Heaslip from University of Tennessee.
“The administration has limited ability to go into the operations of a private company,” he said. “I think certainly there were labour shortages, and I think with the labour shortages, the disruptions that we have are the symptom not the cause.”
Democratic legislators like senator Bernie Sanders and congressman Ro Khanna argued, however, that Mr Buttigieg has kept some arrows in his quiver, and could’ve followed their proposal to levy aggressive fines against airlines that fail to perform.
“Why were these recommendations not followed?” he wrote on twitter in December. “This mess with Southwest could have been avoided. We need bold action.”
Professor McCormick points out that the DOT inherited a bit of a mess from the Trump administration, but hasn’t done enough with its appointments to make things better. The Trump administration’s head of the FAA, which normally has terms that span multiple White Houses, resigned early, but the Biden administration has failed to muscle a new nominee past the objections of Republicans in the Senate, several years later.
Mr Buttigieg faced one of his biggest, and most personal, challenges during the supply chain crisis of 2021, as labour shortages and an influx of online shopping caused long delays at the nation’s ports and trucking terminals.
The administration won plaudits for helping beef up staffing and operations at ports, but this was perhaps overshadowed by Mr Buttigieg taking paternity leave as he and his husband welcomed two new children. The move caused conservatives to lash out, some of it with an ugly edge that seemed to mock the secretary’s gender and sexuality.
“Pete Buttigieg was completely unqualified to serve as Secretary of Transportation,” senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said in October. “Now, Pete is absent during a transportation crisis that is hurting working-class Americans.”
Tucker Carlson joked on Fox News: “Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went.”
Criticisms of Mr Buttigieg seem to seize on his rapid ascension through national Democratic politics, painting him as a slick, unqualified striver who is more interested in TV hits, fawning headlines and the White House than the less glamorous, sausage-making of government.
That perception was only worsened afterThe New York Post reported in December that Mr Buttigieg had flown on tax-payer funded private jets 18 times since taking office.
On Monday, the Transportation Department said it would audit Mr Buttigieg and his predecessor Elaine Chao’s use of the FAA jet fleet.
“Glad this will be reviewed independently so misleading narratives can be put to rest,” the secretary wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Bottom line: I mostly fly on commercial flights, in economy class. And when I do use our agency’s aircraft, it’s usually a situation where doing so saves taxpayer money.”
(Mr Buttigieg’s office has said the cost of the flights was $41,905.20, and in all but one trip, the private flights were cheaper than commercial ones.)
If the transportation secretary does seek another run at the White House, it will be merely another chapter in a unique rise through US politics. Thus far, Mr Buttigieg has managed to fly high, infuriate more than a few people, and even occasionally exceed expectations.
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