by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Negotiations over President Joe Biden’s first infrastructure proposal, however loosely defined, have provided Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg the opportunity to boost his national profile as he and Vice President Kamala Harris use their day jobs to shape their political futures.
The dynamic mirrors a two-person version of President Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” after Harris and Buttigieg suspended their own 2020 White House campaigns against Biden before taking positions in his Cabinet.
But despite Harris being Biden’s heir presumptive, Buttigieg is not ceding the stage as the pair jockey for influence with the new administration and address weaknesses in their resumes revealed by their failed presidential bids.
Buttigieg, 39, is “obviously” a very ambitious politician, said University of Notre Dame political science professor Geoff Layman, based near Buttigieg’s home town of South Bend, Indiana.
“That Buttigieg has been higher-profile than past secretaries of transportation is not just because of his political ambition or talent, but also because President Biden has decided to really emphasize infrastructure in a way that past presidents have not,” he said.
Layman contended that Biden tapped Buttigieg, the country’s first millennial and Senate-confirmed gay Cabinet member, for the position because he “needed a politically attractive, articulate” transportation secretary to push for his agenda.
“And Buttigieg knew Biden would emphasize infrastructure, which is why he, as someone with presidential aspirations, agreed to accept what has traditionally been a fairly low-profile Cabinet position,” he said.
Chera LaForge, Indiana University East’s political science chairwoman, concurred: “His own existing connections on the national stage may make public outreach easier.”
Buttigieg joined a bipartisan Oval Office meeting convened this week to discuss Biden’s sweeping $2.25 trillion jobs and infrastructure spending package, even though he was not originally previewed as an attendee. Perched on a seat normally reserved for Harris or the guest of honor, Buttigieg took on the appearance of perhaps the key player in the talks.