They eventually wore Pete Buttigieg down. For weeks, the Transportation secretary had resisted calls to visit the site of the East Palestine, Ohio, train wreck. He thought it best to “stay out of the way” of National Transportation Safety Board investigators, he told CBS News. Buttigieg—whose signature priorities at the Department of Transportation have been the removal of “racist” highways and the rollout of electric vehicles—at first seemed annoyed at having to focus on a simple railroad accident; “there are roughly 1,000 cases a year of a train derailing,” he told one reporter. His implication was that a Transportation secretary couldn’t be expected to visit every Podunk town where a train winds up in a ditch. But finally, on February 23, he made time to travel to the blue-collar community where a Norfolk Southern freight train had spilled toxic chemicals nearly three weeks before.
Visiting the troubled region the day after former president Donald Trump had passed out free Big Macs and bottles of “Trump Water” was less than ideal. And Buttigieg—unlike Trump—hardly looked happy to be there. Politico portrayed the one-time presidential hopeful as the victim of unfair criticism: “signs are growing that the Transportation secretary’s usual Eagle Scout patience is giving way to frustration,” the publication reported. Of course, crises such as rail disasters rarely occur on schedules convenient to political officials, but leaders are often judged—fairly or unfairly—by how they respond to unexpected challenges or tragedies. John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis remains a cornerstone in accounts of his presidency. George W. Bush’s reputation was bolstered by 9/11, then battered by Hurricane Katrina. Today, the Biden White House is stumbling through simultaneous crises—the Ohio trainwreck and the China balloon controversy—that are far less momentous, yet deeply indicative of the administration’s weaknesses.
The ability to project leadership in a crisis is partly a matter of instinct and temperament. But some useful guidelines exist. After the 1964 Alaska earthquake, a team of social scientists studied how the local population responded to the disaster. Their goal was to help public officials come up with better tools to manage a frightened public in the wake of future catastrophes. Over the years, other researchers have added to this body of “disaster science.” They’ve found that officials generally worry too much that the public will erupt in panic if given too many facts about a disaster. As a result, politicians and bureaucrats often try to withhold or manipulate information, seeking to keep the population calm. In reality, these researchers conclude, the best policy is transparency. Officials should tell the public exactly what they know—and what they don’t know—and trust people to behave appropriately. In fact, withholding information usually backfires, one study notes, since any “perceived lack of information provision increases public anxiety and distrust.”
On one level, there’s only so much that officials can do in the aftermath of a major disaster: the mistakes have already been made, the damage done. But the public doesn’t expect political leaders and relevant agencies to roll back time and make a crisis disappear. What the public asks is, first, that their leaders simply show up. People want their officials to demonstrate focus, compassion, and a determination to get to the bottom of the problem. And they want the truth. During a crisis, the public craves clear, accurate information, not vague assurances or political spin. In recent American history, perhaps the best example of crisis leadership remains New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s performance after the 9/11 attacks. (Younger readers might want to review footage from that era to see a very different Giuliani from the one more recently in the public eye.) The mayor couldn’t undo the city’s grievous damage, but his steely resolve to carry on gave New Yorkers hope.
That ability to calm public fears after a disaster turns out to be a surprisingly rare political talent. Buttigieg has established a tendency to go AWOL whenever trouble erupts on his watch. But he is far from the only political leader who appears incapable of leading during a crisis. The Biden White House as a whole seems both sluggish and prickly when confronted with unexpected incidents. Administration officials barely responded to the Ohio train crash until the political fallout began to intensify. And their reaction to the China spy balloon crisis appeared weak and evasive.
These failures to communicate promptly and transparently with an anxious citizenry couldn’t come at a worse time. After three long years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans’ trust in public officials is at a low ebb, and for good reason. Probably no event in recent memory has done more to erode confidence in our leadership class. Early in the pandemic, Washington Post writer Amanda Ripley described how political leaders and public health officials were already bungling communications about the illness. “This might be the largest public information mess I’ve ever witnessed,” one expert told her. Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why, argues that “clear, consistent, transparent” messaging is vital in a crisis. Instead, public health officials offered false assurances (that the virus wasn’t airborne, for example), issued unfounded recommendations (closing parks and beaches), and worked to silence the voices of experts who dissented from the lockdown agenda.
Throughout the pandemic, the public health establishment—and its handmaiden the media—operated on the assumption that the public is not to be trusted. The American people needed to be gulled or bullied into behaving properly, and discouraged from asking awkward questions—about the efficacy of masks, say, or the origin of the virus. Officials routinely allowed political expediency to trump scientific rigor. For example, Centers for Disease Control director Rochelle Walensky repeatedly cited one particularly dubious study in support of her agency’s draconian policies requiring masks for school children (policies that the American Federation of Teachers, a key Biden ally, strongly backed). Leading experts interviewed by The Atlantic’s David Zweig called that outlier study “unreliable,” and “ridiculous.” “These clowns are undermining faith in the health care system for a generation,” wrote radiologist and public health advocate Pradheep Shanker about a similar case of health officials abusing data.
We are seeing similar patterns in the White House’s handling of both the Ohio train wreck and the China balloon scare. Rather than getting ahead of either story, the White House has treated these alarming incidents as if they are distractions from the administration’s more important work. When Montana news organizations started showing pictures of the balloon on February 1, the Biden administration played down the story. Over the next several days, new details dribbled out—often from unnamed “senior administration officials” speaking on background. The military had tracked the balloon since it left China, we were told. Perhaps it had been intended to spy on our military installations in Guam and got blown off course. Such balloons stray near or into U.S. territory all the time, we later learned. If these disclosures were meant to be reassuring, the public didn’t hear them that way. The idea that an unfriendly foreign nation was routinely sending high-tech airborne contraptions to linger over the United States was unnerving to most Americans.
As the story gained momentum, the administration amped up its rhetoric in turn. On February 3, the White House announced that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would cancel a planned diplomatic trip to China. (Of course, the administration had not cancelled the trip when it first learned of the balloon incursion days earlier. The incident “became a diplomatic crisis only as media attention mounted,” the New York Times dryly noted.) After an F-22 fighter shot down the balloon off the South Carolina coast, the White House adopted a more chest-thumping tone. And the nation’s air-defense posture shifted from distressingly laid back to alarmingly trigger-happy. While the enormous, sensor-studded spy balloon had been allowed to sail serenely over sensitive U.S. installations, the military suddenly started firing on anything found floating through the skies. U.S. fighters shot down three much smaller balloons in a single weekend, despite being unable to determine exactly what they were or whether they presented any threat.
It turned out these mysterious objects were probably either simple weather balloons or “pico-balloons” launched by ham-radio operators and other hobbyists. One amateur club, known as the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, reported that one of its tiny airships had gone “missing in action” in the same region where a U.S. F-22 shot down an unidentified object on February 11. An episode that began in fear was ending in farce. But it wasn’t entirely funny. For the first time in memory, U.S. aircraft were firing on potentially hostile targets over North America. Would this be customary from now on? Finally, more than two weeks after the China balloon was spotted by civilians, Biden gave a brief address on the crisis, promising to develop “sharper rules for how we will deal with these unidentified objects moving forward.”
The administration’s muddled response to the East Palestine train wreck was even more mystifying. One of Biden’s first acts in office was signing Executive Order 14008, which mandated putting “environmental justice” at the heart of the administration’s policy efforts. The order promised to address the needs of “disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and under-investment.” One might think a plume of toxic smoke towering over a rundown community would be the perfect backdrop for administration officials to reinforce this commitment. But East Palestine is in the heart of Trump country, and its residents—while earning incomes far below the national average—don’t fit into any of the racial categories the Left regards as “marginalized.” So, whether for those or other reasons, the White House paid little attention to the story, even as conservative media seized on it.
After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, power-company spokespeople and government officials made a series of statements that many residents believed were meant to downplay the dangers. In the end, health risks to the region’s population were much lower than feared (no fatalities were linked to radiation). But Japanese officials never regained the public’s trust. A similar situation might be at play in East Palestine. While tests indicate that air and water are generally safe, residents can’t be blamed for having their doubts. To his credit, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan eventually took two trips to the region and made a point of drinking a glass of water from a homeowner’s tap. But these gestures might come too late to reassure residents who’ve already decided that the federal government doesn’t care about them.
Managing public perceptions during a crisis is a delicate business. Officials who are slow to address a problem, less than fully transparent, or appear to be putting political calculations first will quickly lose public trust. The Biden administration has made all three of those mistakes in grappling with the Ohio train wreck and China’s spy balloon. While in the long run, these crises might be remembered as minor, they mark another decline in our confidence that American government officials are leveling with us. Such public trust, once squandered, is hard to regain.
Photo by US Department of Defense / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images