Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.
On the evening of February 3, 2023, approximately 50 Norfolk Southern freight train cars derailed and crashed in a fiery explosion outside of East Palestine, Ohio. The train carried vinyl chloride, an explosive gas, and other hazardous, cancer-causing materials. The disaster received national attention as approximately 5,000 residents were urged to evacuate until officials could guarantee their health and safety. Residents have complained of probable side effects of the derailment including rashes, sore throats, and reports of people coughing up blood. There were also reports of thousands of dead fish that likely perished from contaminated water.
The Biden Administration and other Democrats’ response to this ordeal have been horrible from a public relations standpoint. Their lackadaisical response appears uncoordinated, lazy, and uncaring (at least up until recently). To be fair, for much of the duration of the East Palestine disaster, Biden has been preoccupied with shooting down spy balloons and other aerial objects. However, it seems that this administration has been downplaying the incident or purposefully ignoring it in the press.
For instance, the White House initially denied Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s request for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), stating that “what East Palestine needs is much more expansive than what FEMA can provide.” After mounting public criticism, the administration’s stance switched, and it was reported that FEMA would deploy officials to assist.
On Feb. 14, President Biden peculiarly tweeted that “our kids will breathe cleaner air, drink safe water” in response to a tweet from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about climate-smart agriculture. Ironically, children in East Palestine at the time quite literally were not doing such.
Perhaps the most audacious and tone-deaf move the administration has made in the wake of the derailment is visiting Ukraine and announcing $500 million dollars in additional aid while there. This move has rightfully garnered criticism, with the mayor of East Palestine calling the visit “the biggest slap in the face.” Further, Biden never once tweeted about the Ohio situation in the aftermath of the derailment until after being called out by critics for weeks. However, his Twitter account is littered with tweets proudly supporting Ukraine.
This demonstrates the lack of urgency in addressing the situation compared to other environmental initiatives the administration purports to care about.
Michael Regan, another Democrat, and administrator of the EPA, was the first top Biden administration official on the scene in East Palestine. However, this comes 19 days after the initial incident.
Pete Buttigieg, the United States transportation secretary, was blasted online for ignoring the incident. It wasn’t until a Newsweek article came out that he made a statement on Twitter, nearly two weeks after the incident. After finally visiting East Palestine nearly three weeks later, he spent much of his time there blaming the rail industry’s lack of regulations, although he admitted that he could have spoken up sooner about the crash.
The White House has attempted to shift the blame to former President Donald Trump’s time in office, accusing him and Republicans in Congress of rolling back legislation designed to avoid these types of accidents. However, the National Transportation Safety Board’s Jennifer Homendy claimed that some of the rollbacks in question would not have prevented the catastrophe in East Palestine. Even if they did, the shifting of blame instead of owning the situation as the current president is not a good look for this administration.
On Wednesday, Trump visited East Palestine, talking to residents and handing out water bottles and hats. “I sincerely hope that when your representatives and all of the politicians get here, including Biden, they get back from touring Ukraine, that he’s got some money left over,” Trump said.
The fact that Trump made it to East Palestine before anyone from the Biden administration will certainly not go over well with the American public. Especially because Biden took a trip out of the country during this time. It only bolsters the idea that Biden and the Democrats are not as patriotic as Trump and the Republicans. I will give grace and say that obviously, no one except environmental officials tasked with cleaning the area up should not have been there initially. However, the optics do not help because the Biden administration and Buttigieg publicly ignored the incident for so long.
All in all, the shoddy, piecemealed response to this disaster has yielded unfavorable optics for Biden and other Democrats. This could have been an opportunity for them to show strong leadership, but instead, they have fumbled the political football. The mixed messaging, pointing fingers, and lack of interest in handling this situation on the national stage have put them at a disadvantage. I believe that if the criticism was not so rampant and the optics were not so bad, they would have continued to not address the situation publicly.
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