WASHINGTON — With pressure mounting to visit the site of the toxic chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, President Joe Biden said last week that, yes, he does intend to go.
But there is no trip in the works. Nothing on his schedule. Nor are there any plans in motion for Biden to visit the hard-hit area any time soon, administration officials said.
Ask the White House if Biden is going and the answer gets fuzzy: “When or if the president should go is of course a question we would talk about, but I don’t think this is something we’ve been agonizing over in real-time,” a senior White House official said.
More than a month into the train derailment that has threatened this village’s health and economic future on the Pennsylvania border, Biden’s absence thus far has left past and present officials mystified.
“I’m shocked that it hasn’t happened,” former Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said. “I just don’t understand. This is not a hard one.”
“It’s imperative that he shows up there and not just shed light on it [the cleanup] today but make sure the effort is sustained,” added Ryan, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2020 and Senate in 2022.
Opponents are relishing Biden’s discomfort.
Donald Trump, who is running for president again in 2024, visited the site on Feb. 22, putting the White House in an awkward spot. Trump came with pallets of bottled water and accused the Biden administration of a lackluster response, creating a scenario where if Biden arrived on his heels he might look as if a potential rival had shamed him into going.
The White House insists that Biden didn’t appear earlier for a simple and defensible reason: He doesn’t want to distract from the effort to clean the site. Yet as time passes, officials are growing more bewildered that Biden has kept away.
Visiting a population that’s been shaken by trauma is the sort of trip that Biden has made over and over in a long political career.
A disaster hits and Biden, who has endured grievous personal loss in his own life, typically arrives on the scene to comfort the victims. His political identity rests on a connection forged with working-class families, with whom he can empathize having grown up in hardscrabble Scranton, Pennsylvania.
He met with fishermen while serving as vice president in 2010 during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving one to remark appreciatively that Biden was bent on helping “the little man first.” In January, he toured storm damage in California and spoke to business owners unnerved by a series of storms that had caused $1 billion worth of destruction along the central coast.
“I do want the president to come and the sooner the better,” said Michael Rulli, a Republican state senator from Ohio who represents the East Palestine area. Rulli added that he’d like to see Biden bring along scientists who are prepared to answer residents’ questions about health hazards posed by the Norfolk Southern derailment.
“He mentioned that at some point he’d like to be there,” he said. “I think the point is right now.”
Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, has also called on Biden to make the trip. “Look, he should come,” DeWine told “Fox & Friends” last week. “There’s no doubt about it. The president needs to come. The people want to see the president. He should be there.”
Inside the Biden administration, some aides who are removed from direct deliberations over Biden’s travels seem flummoxed by his failure to visit thus far.
“I think he should have gone earlier, but I have to assume there were really smart discussions behind the scenes that presented a viable reason why he was waiting to go,” one administration official said.
Those familiar with the White House’s thinking offer this defense: Biden’s focus is on rail safety and getting immediate help to residents, not the political theater of a presidential visit. A president carries a large “footprint” and a visit would slow progress on the cleanup.
What’s more, Biden has been in constant touch with officials on the ground and members of his cabinet have already visited the site. It’s easier for them to travel because they don’t come with the vast entourage that follows the president where ever he goes.
Michael Regan, who heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made repeated visits to East Palestine. And Pete Buttigieg, secretary of the U.S. Transportation Department, went on Feb. 23, nearly three weeks after the crash.
Yet even Buttigieg now recognizes that he waited too long. He told CNN in an interview: “Sometimes people need policy work and sometimes people need performative work. And to get to this level, you’ve got to be ready to serve up both.”
Those words could just as easily apply to Biden.
If and when Biden goes to the region, it would be a moment that “makes sense” — perhaps tacked onto another trip, a second White House official said.
A comparable situation arose when Biden traveled to the Southern border. He had faced heavy criticism from Republicans for not visiting the entry point. He wound up going to El Paso, Texas, in January as part of a trip to Mexico City for a summit meeting with his North American counterparts.
There are no assurances that if Biden visited the scene, he’d get a warm reception. East Palestine is part of conservative Columbiana County, where Trump defeated Biden, 72 percent-27 percent, in the 2020 election. The mayor, Trent Conaway, gave an interview to Fox News last month in which he ripped Biden for visiting Ukraine and sending it money to defend itself in the war with Russia.
“That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us,” Conaway said.
As is inevitably the case, Biden’s travel plans have taken on a political hue, with opponents claiming that his absence is emblematic of a disregard for smaller heartland communities. Republicans have sought to capitalize on the issue. At Trump’s campaign stop in East Palestine last month, he passed out bottled water and claimed without evidence that the only reason the Biden administration was giving more aid to the village was because he had announced he would visit.
“Republican elected officials have decided to make a political fight over when Secretary Pete went and if the president is going instead of holding a company that they know is responsible for this action accountable,” said the senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely.
By waiting this long, Biden has to consider that if he visits the scene now, it may appear as if he’s bowing to right-wing pundits and politicians who’ve shamed him into going.
David Pepper, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman, said that Biden must not take cues from Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
“The politics are exhausting,” he said. What the residents most need is for people to “bring answers about the health and environmental situation.”
East Palestine’s conservative tilt is all the more reason for Biden to visit, some Democrats said. As someone who promised to unify the country, Biden needs to model behavior that shows he’s committed to all Americans and shower some personal attention on a small town that sorely needs it, they added.
A visit would “show you’re the leader of the country and that nobody is forgotten,” Ryan, the former congressman, said. “It would say that you can disagree with my politics, but when the chips are down, I will be there for you and show up. That’s when you begin the healing process in this country.”