WASHINGTON — As the White House struggles to repair the nation’s broken supply chains ahead of the holiday shopping rush, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is facing his first major test as a Cabinet secretary.
On Wednesday, President Biden announced a plan to ease supply chain bottlenecks by keeping the Port of Los Angeles, which accounts for nearly half of all shipping containers entering the U.S., operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“If federal support is needed, I will direct all appropriate action. And if the private sector doesn’t step up, we’re going to call them out and ask them to act,” Biden said during remarks delivered from the White House.
“The bottom line, we’ve seen the cost of inaction in the pandemic,” the president added as Buttigieg looked on. “It is fully within our capacity to act, to make sure it never happens again. It’s going to take a little time, that we’ve unlocked the full might and dynamism of our people.”
Over the past several months Buttigieg has been tasked with coordinating with private companies across the trade and transportation sector to try to alleviate the backlog at the nation’s ports. Biden has voiced his resounding support of Buttigieg in his capacity as secretary, thanking him as a key negotiator during his remarks Wednesday.
Since his appointment to head the Department of Transportation, Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor turned presidential candidate, has largely steered clear of controversy and scrutiny. But with the nation’s supply chains backed up as the economy emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, he has come in for blistering criticism from Republicans.
“Pete Buttigieg is completely unqualified to handle the supply chain crisis. The only reason he's the Secretary of Transportation is because he endorsed Joe Biden. Even Pete knows it,” frequent Biden critic Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted Wednesday.
Last week, with the fate of the president’s Build Back Better infrastructure plan in doubt, Biden appointed Buttigieg to co-chair a Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to address the backlog at the ports. And on Wednesday, Buttigieg joined Vice President Kamala Harris and senior economic adviser Brian Deese in a virtual roundtable with relevant sector contributors.
But the Transportation Department had already spent months attempting to tackle backlog issues at the California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In July, Buttigieg hosted another roundtable that focused on how increased consumer demand would affect already overburdened supply chains. Yet actual solutions proved somewhat elusive.
“For our economy to fully recover, we now need our vital supply chains to operate smoothly and without avoidable congestion,” Buttigieg said at the time.
While the U.S. economic picture continued to brighten heading into the fall, the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus kept demand at a modest pace. Yet shipping logjams persisted.
An effective television surrogate for the administration, Buttigieg said in a Wednesday morning appearance on CNN that the White House was committed to repairing the nation’s overburdened supply chains. He also shifted some of the blame to Congress.
"We are relying on supply chains that were built generations ago. It's one of the reasons why this entire year we have been talking about and working on infrastructure and are eager to see Congress act to get this infrastructure deal through,” Buttigieg said, adding, "That's what the president has directed us to do, and that's part of why we're gathering right here at the White House with leaders from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, labor leaders and the private-sector companies that, you know, the FedExes, UPSes, Walmarts, others who play that role on everything that happens between when something arrives on a ship and when it gets to the shelves so you can get it to your home."
But cable news appearances have not appeased everyone. Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré blasted the former mayor’s media appearances last week, tweeting that Buttigieg should “stop all the TV interviews and go to Ports and get this S..t fixed.”
Reacting to the slight, Buttigieg told MSNBC’s Geoff Bennett Wednesday that “it may not have been getting a lot of coverage, but we’ve been working on this from the very beginning. The president signed an executive order on this issue in February, and our department went to work right away.”
Still, the concern over Buttigieg’s relative lack of experience in handling supply chain issues comes as Biden’s approval ratings have fallen to the lowest levels of his presidency and the holiday shopping season is set to begin.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a Wednesday briefing to reporters that Biden has known “it was inevitable that there would be economic challenges” coming out of quarantine. As a result, the availability of toys, appliances, furniture and other goods was likely to be affected by heightened demand and inadequate shipping capabilities. For this reason, Psaki said, the president had decided to make “critical” commitments at the Port of Los Angeles that would have “immediate impact” for Americans. Psaki declined to say when those backlogs might be resolved.
“We are not the Postal Service,” she said, yet “we can use every lever at the federal government’s disposal to reduce delays.”
In an interview with Bloomberg earlier in the week, however, Buttigieg delivered a less optimistic view, saying, “Some of this is a bigger-picture, longer-term issue that’s going to take years and years to address.”
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