Joe Biden is facing a growing crisis over which he has (almost) no control: the fallout from the February 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio. Problems like these are particularly bedeviling for presidents because the politics of large-scale accidents and acts of God follow an irrational, if understandable, course. Their massive scale often obscures the fact that there’s not much for a president to do in response.
The suddenness of overwhelming disasters—from hurricanes to oil spills to chemical explosions—seems to demand an equally instantaneous and overwhelming response. But once a disaster hits, what’s usually needed is clean-up and mitigation work, which is painfully slow-going. During the time it takes federal agencies to assess the situation, devise plans, and mobilize teams to help, media images of towering black clouds or petroleum-coated wildlife or houses submerged in water begin to run on a loop. Those affected by the disaster come to feel abandoned, and the one-off event becomes a stand-in for some supposedly widespread national failing.
What’s more, because these disasters are so large, people tend to skip over the question of local-government responsibility and take their complaints straight to the White House—even when local leadership deserves the blame. In 2005, New Orleans’s mayor Ray Nagin failed to issue an emergency-evacuation order until less than 24 hours before Hurricane Katrina hit land. Nagin then refused to let residents leave on hundreds of school buses that Louisiana’s evacuation plan had designated for that very purpose. He also botched the distribution of food and the provision of safe shelter. To top it off, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco rejected President George W. Bush’s request to federalize the National Guard to assist with emergency relief. The hurricane ultimately killed nearly 1,500 Americans. And because of New Orleans’s large black population, it became a stand-in for racism.
But when all was said and done, Katrina would be a permanent stain on Bush’s second term. Because he was the president. A photo of him on Air Force One looking down at the disaster from the skies sealed his image as a president who didn’t care about the suffering of African Americans.
On a far smaller scale, Barack Obama got hit with undeserved criticism in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. From a contemporaneous account in Politico: “As oozing oil fouls Louisiana’s marshes, Obama has committed to maintaining the semblance of a regular schedule, adhering to his walk-and-chew-gum style of crisis management even as criticism of his administration mounts.” Obama rightly blamed BP for the spill, sent an army of federal administrators to the region, and talked up a continued moratorium on drilling. But he got slammed by both the right and the environmentalist left because he was supposed to do…something.
Obama couldn’t reverse the flow of oil and send it back into the rig. Bush couldn’t part the floodwaters of Louisiana. And Joe Biden can’t send the Norfolk Southern train back on its way with its hazardous cargo safely sealed. But when these things happen, and drag on, Americans start to act as if presidents have superpowers that they’re neglecting to use out of spite. And activists seize these statistically rare events to advance their gripes. So Hurricane Katrina became emblematic of American racism. The BP spill was framed as an environmental wake-up call. And the Norfolk Southern derailment is just another reminder of capitalist greed.
What a president can do in these circumstances is demonstrate that he’s on top of the details, that he understands the enormity of the situation, and sympathizes with those who have been harmed. And here Biden has failed spectacularly. The train derailed almost three weeks ago, and the president has barely mentioned it. It’s wrong to say that he should have visited East Palestine instead of Kyiv because this isn’t an either/or situation. He was right to go to Ukraine, and he should have already taken a trip to Ohio. Biden will now surely start to course correct, but the damage is done. The question is: Does this become his Hurricane Katrina or merely his Deepwater Horizon?