It is February 11th, 2020 in Nashua New Hampshire and the HQ of the Pete Buttigieg campaign is buzzing with energy and optimism. His candidate has just ended second place in the iconic New Hampshire primary, only days after having a strong show in the chaotic first caucus in the country in Iowa. Buttigieg had gone from being a mayor from an unknown town in Indiana to beating the former frontrunner Joe Biden by almost 20 points in New Hampshire.
After the trend seems clear, the mayor of South Bend comes to the stage, encourages his supporters and asks them to help him “turn the page to a new chapter on American history” as they prepare to go and win the Nevada Caucuses, their prospects seem positive: Biden has badly lost both primaries and some might see a chance for Mayor Pete to take the moderate lane that is concerned with the rising prospects of a Bernie candidacy.
Times change, however, and in politics they might change faster than you think. A few weeks after that triumphant speech, Buttigieg was announcing his withdrawal from the presidential race, endorsing Biden who went from publishing negative ads against the mayor to saying that he reminded him of his late son Beau.
Buttigieg was out, and Biden was pretty much in. However, the Indiana native had raised his profile nationally and if he moved his newly-found leverage correctly, he could get into the big leagues of American politics, specially if Biden won the election. If not as a candidate for senate or governor (which would not make sense as Indiana is profoundly conservative) at least as a cabinet member.
Secretary of Transportation : A blessing or a curse?
To Buttigieg’s good luck, Biden did win the election and appointed him to a position in the cabinet, Transportation. A seat on the Cabinet would definitely help the former mayor to keep himself in the national spotlight and develop his Washington D.C skills while he serves under the Biden administration, however, it is clear that being the head of the Department of Transportation Secretary is not as flashy as being Secretary of State or Attorney General.
Hence, Buttigieg finds himself in a position that has both opportunities and tremendous risks. He can polish his resume, maintain a national media presence, and expand his contacts in the nation’s capital during his tenure as cabinet member, all of these things could prove very useful if Mayor Pete decides again to go for the big prize in the future.
The flipside to that, however, is that he is the head of a rather technical and relatively obscure ministry, which could easily absorb him into the blob of D.C’s bureaucratic world while limiting his capabilities to maintain an active public persona, all while other of his former primary rivals (such as VP Harris) are having an easy task at maintaining their public profiles in the public’s mind.
Infrastructure bill: Buttigieg’s biggest chance
The good news for Secretary Buttigieg is that Infrastructure will now be front and center on the public discussion, as President Biden attempts to pass a bill that would pump around $3 trillion on infrastructure projects around the country. The Biden White House nows that it has a limited timeframe to get legislation done before Congress gets on full campaign mode for 2022, and a successful push on infrastructure would be a theoretically good case for trying to pass a bipartisan agreement.
Bipartisan being an important factor in this equation as it is not clear if the Biden White House would be able to use the same parliamentary maneuver that allowed the administration to pass the COVID relief bill via a simple majority vote.
Buttigieg, as Biden’s top leader on Infrastructure, will have a prominent role in the promotion of the bill to both lawmakers and the public. A role that he has already began to play, by selling the incoming infrastructure bill as “the best chance in any of our lifetimes to make a generational investment in infrastructure” while also emphasizing the importance of listening to the needs and concerns of local officials (which he was one) when drafting the sweeping infrastructure bill, an approach he hopes would convince some Republicans to vote for the President’s bill.
Although infrastructure might be seen as a topic where both parties agree something has to be done (Trump hinted at Infrastructure legislation during his four years) there are some significant hurdles to get 10 Republican Senators to agree on the gigantic price tag proposed by Democratic lawmakers.
Republican Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that the proposed infrastructure plan might be a “trojan horse for massive tax hikes and other job-killing left wing policies” and Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) saying that any legislation must be a “transportation bill- not the Green New Deal”. If the COVID bill serves as an indicator, it is very difficult for the administration (and Buttigieg) to overcome this resistance.
Buttigieg knows that the Infrastructure bill debate would probably be the best chance he has of capturing the national spotlight while serving as a cabinet member, as he would become the team member responsible of defending both to the public and Congress Biden’s bill, a task that if done well might earn him accolades within the Democratic base and establishment.
The fate of Buttigieg does not depend on the passage or failure of the bill, that is something that is bigger than him, but in his effectiveness as a spokesman for the administration. If the Secretary manages to mount a convincing argument, he would keep a positive public image out of the process even if the bill dies in Congress. A bad rollout of the bill, however, might tarnish the image of the young mayor, hampering his future prospects in national politics.
Although the Secretary has started his charm offensive, he has already found some difficulties on his end as he was forced to reassure voters that the proposed legislation of the administration would not include any gas or mileage tax after he had previously said that both policies showed “good promise” a few days before.
Pete Buttigieg went from unknown mayor, to formidable presidential candidate to leading the charge on one of Biden’s top domestic policy priorities. It is in his hands if such rise would continue or if his political stardom quietly fade in the darkness.