Untangling the supply chain mess

President Joe Biden wants to save Christmas and fix supply chain issues, but he has few options available to alleviate a logistical bottleneck that left dozes of container ships idling in the ocean.


National News

October 14, 2021 - 10:03 AM

Workers load and unload containers Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, at the Evergreen terminal in the Port of Los Angeles. President Joe Biden announced Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, that the Port of Los Angeles will begin operating 24 hours a day, a push from the White House to clear supply chain disruptions that are threatening holiday shopping season plans and slowing the nation's economic recovery from the pandemic. (Chuck Bennett/TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden wants to save Christmas — but he may not be able to.

He announced Wednesday that the Port of Los Angeles would operate around the clock to alleviate a logistical bottleneck that has left dozens of container ships idling off the California coast and Americans waiting longer to get products manufactured overseas.

Longshoremen will work through the night and major retailers and shippers have pledged to clear cargo off the docks faster than before, changes that are intended to speed the flow of toys, electronics and other gifts to American doorsteps during the holiday season.

“Today’s announcement has the potential to be a game changer,” Biden said as he acknowledged that people are worrying about whether everything from “toasters to sneakers to bicycles to bedroom furniture” were going to be available.

However, the plan addresses only one link in a global supply chain largely outside of Biden’s control, meaning he faces potential blowback from unhappy shoppers while also lacking the power to fix the mess.

Biden can’t force overseas factories to keep churning out products. He can’t hire more truck drivers to pick up cargo when it arrives. And he can’t stop the pandemic that continues to disrupt operations all over the world.

The bottom line: Americans want their stuff, and there’s very little that Biden can do to get it to them.

Matthew Sherwood, global economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit based in London, described the White House’s actions as “fairly limited.”

“I think the administration is doing what it can, but the reality is there’s not that much it can do beyond what they’re announcing,” he said.

Nick Vyas, executive director of the Randall R. Kendrick Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Southern California, commended Biden’s effort to bring various groups together and said more private sector companies would need to heed his call to step up operations if they want to address the problem.

“If all of these were to click, I think we’ll see some results in the next two to three months,” he said.

Whether the supply chain problems are Biden’s fault may not matter to voters, who tend to project their displeasure toward the person in charge.

Biden faces a similar challenge with the coronavirus. His administration has made enough vaccines available for every American, but millions are still unwilling to get their shots, prolonging the deadly COVID-19 pandemic — and driving down the president’s poll numbers.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said recently that souring public opinion is “a reflection of people being sick and tired of COVID,” but that the president understands “the buck stops with him.”

When it comes to the worldwide flow of goods, Psaki demurred Wednesday when asked whether the administration can ensure that holiday packages would arrive on time.

“We are not the Postal Service, UPS or Fedex,” she said. “We cannot guarantee.”

Psaki was also cautious about promising Americans that the situation would improve quickly, especially at a time when analysts suggest that problems could persist into next year.