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Julianna Goldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who was formerly a Washington-based correspondent for CBS News and White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.
Note to politicians with presidential aspirations: Joining the Cabinet makes the path that much harder. Just ask Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Cabinet secretaries are just one of more than a dozen top bureaucrats in the executive branch. They’re tied to the popularity or unpopularity of the administration. Their lot is to labor in obscurity unless and until something bad happens — and then to take criticism and absorb blame.
Once upon a time, serving as a Cabinet secretary could lead to the presidency. But the last one to take that step was Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, in 1928. Since then, no sitting or former Cabinet secretary has been elected president, and only one has been nominated — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. Her circumstances were unique, but from Benghazi to her private email server, Clinton’s experience as the nation’s top diplomat was more a political liability than a benefit.
So when a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic materials derailed three weeks ago in East Palestine, Ohio, leaving residents unsure whether they could even drink their own water, the political finger-pointing inevitably turned ugly. Buttigieg, who hasn’t ruled out another presidential bid and who hasn’t shied away from sparring with the MAGA crowd, has become Republicans’ main target.
They charge that Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has been MIA, and that he should have visited the crash site sooner. Donald Trump, who went to East Palestine last week and handed out Trump-branded water, used the occasion to mock “Pete Boot-Edge-Edge.” Republicans (and a few Democrats) are calling for hearings, with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio saying he should be fired. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who mocked Buttigieg for taking parental leave last year when he welcomed twins with his husband, called him “flamboyantly incompetent,” a brazen dog whistle.
The outrage at Buttigieg is misguided and opportunistic. Not only does it obscure the history of the rail industry spending heavily and working with some Republicans to roll back, stop or water down safety regulations, it also ignores the law: In a situation like this, the Transportation Department is not in charge. The EPA is on the front lines of the federal response. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is an independent agency, investigates the how and the why of the crash. The transportation secretary has no role in the immediate response and cleanup efforts.
“Congress sometimes forgets to read their own laws,” said Craig Fugate, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Buttigieg did visit the crash site last week, promising tougher regulations and pledging to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. It’s still unclear whether the tighter rail regulations that were rolled back during the Trump era would have prevented this accident. But Buttigieg also acknowledged he waited too long to respond, noting that he “was taking pains to respect the role that I have and the role that I don’t have.”
Politico reported last week that after the derailment, Buttigieg was prepared to answer any questions for 10 days, but no interviewer asked him. That’s a pretty passive response, especially considering that he was already under fire by Republicans for a series of transportation-related issues under his watch, including January’s FAA computer meltdown.
Yes, the political circus obscures the real victims, who just want to know if they’re safe and what kind of financial losses they face. But the circus is the reality.
That said, there are larger forces at work here: The accident is illustrative of an across-the-board failure of institutions, which plays into a deep public distrust of public and private institutions. Just 45 percent of the country trusts the government and media, while 55 percent trust business, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer. In the Midwest, the figures are 40 percent and 51 percent, respectively. Among low-income Midwesterners, just 28 percent trust key institutions.
The Midwest is the most likely region to say that businesses should prioritize “stakeholders” — customers and employees — over “shareholders.” And of all the regions in the U.S., it’s the most disappointed in business support for local communities — with a 49-point gap between those who say it’s what they expect versus what they see in terms of performance.
“People suspect that business has prioritized profit over the community,” said Tonia Ries, executive director of intellectual property for Edelman’s Trust Institute. And in East Palestine, she said, government has also “not provided the oversight to protect the communities.”
The bottom line, to use a business term: People see business and government as failing their communities. Restoring trust in those institutions is a job bigger than even the most powerful Cabinet secretary. Until that’s accomplished, the kind of anger-inducing political fallout seen in East Palestine, Ohio, will keep arising.