Presidents begin their terms with grand visions of how they’ll uplift Americans with futuristic policy prescriptions, but often get mired in the more mundane task of making sure the old boring stuff still works.
For President Biden, there may be no better example of this reality than the historic rise in inflation, which has turned every purchase into a reminder that something is broken in Washington that Biden has yet to fix.
But a close second is obstacles that prevent people from the simple act of traveling from place to place. For the last several months, Americans have become dissatisfied with every major mode of travel and are increasingly lodging their complaints with an administration that sometimes has an answer and sometimes doesn’t.
Americans were forced to wear masks on airplanes for more than a year until a U.S. District Court judge ruled the federal government had no authority to impose that requirement. But what should have been a joyous return to air travel only led to complaints about delays and rescheduled flights.
A nationwide pilot shortage is seen as a major reason behind these delays. In some cases, the problem has led airlines to end service to certain cities because they don’t have the staff to make the trip.
Over the summer, the airline industry said it was short 12,000 pilots and said fewer flights are taking off from most airports.
In a May Senate hearing, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took a stab at the problem by saying his department is trying to speed up the approval of “workforce development grants” that might be used to increase the supply of available pilots. But Buttigieg had no immediate answers for solving the problem.
“There won’t be a quick fix, but we’ve got to work on shoring up that domestic aviation workforce,” he told senators. He later told Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., “We’re gathering information on how that needle is moving, and we’d be happy to stay in touch with your office about what we’re seeing and what resources we need.”
Buttigieg said the problem is similar to the shortage of truckers that companies have faced, reminding lawmakers about another mode of transportation that is on shaky grounds.
In July, Buttigieg said he’s been speaking with airlines about the problem and will “continue using all of the authorities that available to us as a department,” including working on air traffic control staffing issues.
But by August, Buttigieg said his department was working on the more achievable goal of making sure passengers are refunded the cost of their flight when it is canceled.
The Biden administration narrowly avoided a rail strike just this week, but not before Amtrak started to adjust its long-distance service. Amtrak said early adjustments had to be made to make sure trains can reach their destinations before a possible strike that was imminent this week.
Biden’s Transportation Department was able to broker an agreement between unions and rail companies by early Thursday morning, a result that Biden hailed as a “win for tens of thousands of rail workers, and for their dignity and the dignity of their work.”
But the deal came at a cost that could lead to higher costs for travelers in the near future. Rail workers won a 24 percent increase over the next five years, along with better working conditions and health care coverage, and paid time off.
The issue is not necessarily resolved. The tentative agreement still has to be agreed to by 12 labor unions, and one of those has already rejected the deal. That union said it would delay a possible strike as other unions consider the agreement.
The Biden administration may also have to deal with the environmental backlash of its agreement. Rail companies are the top user of coal, and rolling railcars means heavy coal use.
The near doubling of gasoline prices from the time Biden took office through June 2022 was a shock felt by everyone, and one that still stings even as prices have fallen from their summer highs. Even non-drivers felt the secondary effect of rising prices on groceries and anything else that gets trucked to its final destination.
Economists blamed much of the increase on rebounding demand for oil in the wake of the COVID downturn, but Biden was quickly viewed as a significant hurdle to price relief. His moratorium on new oil and gas drilling leases, the decision to stop accepting oil from Russia, and overall support for environmental protection and increased regulations on energy companies seemed to match his campaign pledge to eradicate the use of fossil fuels and led to complaints that he was oblivious to people shelling out more than $5 for a gallon of gas.
As prices ratcheted higher, Biden’s team blamed Russia and energy companies and then tried rebrand Americans’ expensive new reality as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to buy an electric vehicle. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said buying an EV will “help break our reliance on fossil fuels.”
“The EV future is at our doorstep,” Buttigieg tweeted in January. “@USDOT and @ENERGY are working to make sure America is ready.”
In California, where the future happens, Americans got a sense that perhaps the EV future is bleak. Days after Newsom won headlines for banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars, his state was suddenly faced with an energy crisis that prompted Newsom to urge Californians not to charge their EVs as the state faced rolling blackouts.
Day-to-day, the nation’s transportation woes appear to be headaches for Biden, but there is something of a silver lining for Democrats in this cloud of despair. Each problem leads to increasing calls for government answers, and Biden appears to be all too happy to supply them.
By this week, Biden was announcing that his administration had approved funding for a vast EV charging network across the country, starting with 35 states, all thanks to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill he signed last year.
“We are the United States of America,” Biden said in Detroit as he announced the new funding. “And there literally — I mean this sincerely — there’s not a damn thing we can’t do — nothing, nothing, nothing — if we do it together.”