Ray LaHood Profile: Politician Extraordinaire

The Washington Post (June 30, 2010) has a style-type profile of U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, noting the prime-time flare LaHood has achieved while oddly ignoring issues of transportation policy substance. The reporter marvels over LaHood’s high public profile, noting:

So how did LaHood transform what Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” called the “least glamorous” Cabinet position into hobnobbing with Jordin Sparks and Oprah Winfrey?

“Lookit,” he says with a shrug, “the president asked me to do a job, so I’m doing it.”

Doing the job has meant globe-trotting to check out trains in China and Toyotas in Japan and to have meetings in Moscow. At home there are just two kinds of states: those where he’s been to spread his gospel of safety and to inspect transportation systems, and those states that he plans to visit soon.

But his public face plays most frequently against a backdrop of Washington: The Potomac is his setting to denounce drunken driving; there he is outside a D.C. police station to plead for safe holiday-season driving; he’s surrounded by local cops while pushing the “click-it-or-ticket” campaign; he’s joining high school students in Union Station who pledge not to text behind the wheel; and he’s standing on a table at a Capitol Hill gathering of cyclists to emphasize that federal transportation policy now includes pedal pushers.

Coming after a long line of relative “who-dats,” LaHood has more than 3,300 Facebook fans, more than 6,000 Twitter followers, and his blog gets more than 40,000 hits a week, second only to President Obama in federal blogdom.

And he has used every one of those cyberlinks to tell Americans that — whether they’re driving planes, trains or automobiles — it’s time to put down the cellphone and pay attention. In his self-described “rampage” against distracted driving, he has enlisted Sparks, Winfrey and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “Ray’s a rock star,” says Missi Tessier, a colleague from his Capitol Hill days. “Normally, it’s the other Cabinet members who have a much higher profile.”

This about sums up the point of the article: The substance of transportation policy is less important than the public profile of the cabinet secretary. As congestion mounts on our roadways, productivity drops, the system continues to deteriorate along key performance measures, and transportation funding rauthorization proposals are delayed by years, LaHood is the politician who can work across the aisles and seek compromise on behalf of the Obama Administration’s objectives: distracted driving and high-speed rail. Indeed, a look at US DOT’s strategic plan suggests the department if far more focused on environmental and land use issues–sustainability and livability–than it is on moving people quickly and efficienctly (mobility).

LaHood is nevertheless focusing on one of the few core values and goals left in US DOT’s mission: safety. Unfortunately, his activity here is far more focused on restraining freedom and liberty rather than enabling it. The proper liberty-enhancing approach would to enact policies the promote individual responsibility and accountability, not broad-based restrictions on use regardless of individual behavior and use (even as overall highway safety steadily improves). Of course, Oprah Winfrey are far more likely to highlight policies that restrict cell phone use since they can be tied to very ugly and flashy effects.

Too bad the much larger problems of lost economic productivity and squandered time from traffic congestion, or ITS solutions to improving traffic flow, aren’t sexy enough to make it into prime time.