President Biden and the White House face a political threat over the fallout from the administration’s response to the Norfolk Southern train derailment that has left residents of East Palestine, Ohio, scared and frustrated.
Republicans have gone on the attack over the Feb. 3 derailment, questioning the urgency of the administration’s response and asking why Biden has not visited the impacted community.
Former President Trump on Wednesday accused the Biden administration of “indifference and betrayal” toward East Palestine during a visit there, while the mayor of the village called it a “slap in the face” that Biden went to Europe before visiting the site of a potential environmental disaster. The White House said Biden has not spoken to the mayor.
It’s not as if Biden is at a political low point.
He returned late Wednesday from a dramatic trip to Ukraine and Poland to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, completing a secretive and complex visit to an active war zone with no U.S. military presence.
That visit was a sign of the president’s strength and will be used by the White House and Biden allies to both shore up support for the Western effort to back Kyiv and to counter any suggestion that Biden lacks the strength and energy to do his job.
It is part of a broadly successful several weeks for Biden, who put Republicans on defense over Social Security and Medicare during his State of the Union address. The president’s approval rating increased to 49 percent, according to an NPR poll released Wednesday; it’s his highest mark in nearly a year.
Yet there are real risks to the train derailment story, which took place in the traditional swing state of Ohio that has in the last decade seemingly turned against the president’s party. Fallout from the train derailment has also hit the swing state of Pennsylvania.
Republicans have made pointed arguments directed toward both Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who visited East Palestine on Thursday. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has called on the secretary resign.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who represents the area where the derailment occurred, gave Buttigieg an “F” for his response to the toxic chemical spill in an interview with Fox News on Feb. 18.
“I mean, he hasn’t shown up,” Johnson said.
Trump, who is running for president next year, clearly saw a political opportunity in his visit, meeting with first responders, local officials and Ohio Republicans and promising to deliver his namesake water to the community.
Separately, reporters peppered White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre with questions about why Biden does not yet have plans to visit Ohio. She argued there was no reason to “struggle” over why the president hasn’t been there yet.
Buttigieg himself admitted Thursday that he could have spoken out sooner about the crash.
At the same time, both Buttigieg and Jean-Pierre sought to go on offense on Thursday, focusing on what the administration has done while taking to task Trump and other Republicans for opposing safety regulations.
Buttigieg called on the former president to support the Biden administration reversing Trump-era deregulation, saying “we’re not afraid to own our policies when it comes to raising the bar on regulation.”
Jean-Pierre said attacks on Buttigieg were in “bad faith” because former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao wasn’t attacked when similar types of chemical spills occurred during her time as head of the agency.
“There’s been a lot of bad faith attacks on Secretary Buttigieg. Why we believe it’s bad faith is if you remember, Elaine Chao … she was the head of the Department of Transportation and when there was these types of chemical spills, nobody was calling for her to be fired,” Jean-Pierre said.
“It is pure politics,” she added.
Jean-Pierre spent much of Thursday’s press briefing focused on visits this week by both Buttigieg and Environmental Protection Agency head Michael Regan.
Buttigieg’s visit aligned with the release of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) initial findings from the investigation into the derailment that tentatively corroborated reports that a wheel bearing severely overheated ahead of the accident.
The Transportation Department also defended the timing of the secretary’s trip, saying Buttigieg wanted to “go when it is appropriate and wouldn’t detract from the emergency response efforts.”
The White House and the Transportation Department have both said that the EPA is taking the lead on the federal response to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, noting those officials arrived at the site early on Feb. 4, hours after the crash.
Others argued that Buttigieg represented the White House well when he went to East Palestine.
“His presence represents not only transportation, but also represents the White House’s commitment to this issue,” said Brandon Neal, an Obama Transportation Department alum and former Buttigieg campaign adviser.
The White House in recent days has blamed Republicans for pushing to loosen railway and environmental regulations. Railway companies themselves have spent millions on lobbying efforts to kill bills in Congress and in state legislatures that aim to implement any further safety standards.
Andrew Bates, a deputy White House press secretary, accused Republicans of laying the groundwork for the situation in East Palestine by opposing tougher regulations on the rail industry and seeking to rollback environmental rules around drinking water.
Abdullah Hassan, an assistant press secretary at the White House, shared a readout on Wednesday detailing what the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have been doing on the ground to aid an investigation into the derailment.
“While some have been exploiting the people of East Palestine for their own self-interest, others have been doing the actual work of holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the company’s mess,” Hassan tweeted.
Biden lost Ohio in 2020 to Trump, who received more than 53 percent of the vote. A Democrat hasn’t won Ohio in a presidential race since 2012, but Democrats were surprisingly competitive there in last year’s Senate race, where Republicans spent big to ensure GOP Sen. J.D. Vance defeated former Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan.
East Palestine is located in Columbiana County where 71 percent of voters backed Trump in 2020. It also sits near the border of Pennsylvania, another high-stakes state crucial to victory.
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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va), whose state also sits on the border with Ohio, said in a statement that the Biden administration had failed to “step up to the plate.”
“[I]t is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior Administration official to show up,” Manchin said the day Regan visited the site on Feb. 16. “The damage done to East Palestine and the surrounding region is awful and it’s past time for those responsible to step up to the plate.”
This week, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the only other GOP-declared 2024 contender besides Trump, quipped: “Biden’s over in Poland but shouldn’t he be with those people in Ohio?”