In the long-term, the appointment of Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation-designee may prove to be Biden’s most important appointment to date. Not only will the Transportation Department play a pivotal role in Biden’s “Build Back Better” administration, but Buttigieg has been given an invaluable opportunity to demonstrate the skills one looks for in a president.
Mayor Pete is making history—again. The first time was his run for president as the first openly gay candidate. This time the 38- year-old former South Bend, Indiana, mayor is the first openly gay appointee to a cabinet post. He would also be one of the youngest appointees to a US Presidential cabinet. Both are reasons to celebrate. But, perhaps more importantly, the appointment is taking a major step towards Buttigieg’s long term career goal—election as president of the United States.
In making the appointment, President Biden is getting an exceptionally bright leader for a department likely to play an important role in an administration focused on recovery from the economic and social devastation caused by the coronavirus. Buttigieg, a Rhodes Scholar, honed his project management and data analysis skills at the blue-chip consulting firm McKinsey. He will bring vision and brains, and the ability to communicate that vision to the job. Biden’s chances of delivering on his promise of rebuilding America’s infrastructure just got better.
Earlier this year candidate Buttigieg released a detailed infrastructure plan titled, “Building for the 21st Century: An infrastructure plan to create jobs, increase resilience, and usher in a new era of opportunity.” The plan proposes changing the funding base for the Highway Trust Fund from a gas tax to a user fee, assumed to be a “miles-driven formula.” The new tax would produce $165 billion for the trust fund, helping to make it solvent.
Perhaps more importantly, the plan called for $50 billion in grants to states and local governments to repair or replace at least half the nation’s failing bridges by 2030. He also called for $6 billion in grants to support infrastructure, such as charging stations, to support electric vehicles.
Differences with the president-elect’s infrastructure plan are difficult to find. Buttigieg’s plan would invest $1 trillion and produce six million jobs. Biden calls for “an accelerated $2 trillion investment” that includes infrastructure repair but with a more prominent focus on climate change.
John D. Porcari, a principal advisor to Biden during the presidential campaign, Deputy Secretary at the Transportation Department in the Obama administration, and two-time Secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, said that the priority of the new administration would be to get the economy moving again. After that, Porcari expects a new surface transportation bill to implement several of Biden’s proposals, including an enhanced rail system, grants to states, and clean energy initiatives. It is unclear whether Porcari will play a major role under Buttigieg or elsewhere in the Biden administration.
Although service as Secretary of Transportation will undoubtedly make Buttigieg a more credible presidential candidate in the future, his commitment to service is well-established. He served in Afghanistan in a non-combat role as a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve and has long been an advocate for national service. He told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow:
“We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era. One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it — if not legally obligatory but certainly a social norm — that anybody after they’re 18 spends a year in national service.”
During the campaign, Joe Biden proposed granting $10,000 of undergraduate or graduate student loan forgiveness for each of up to five years of national or community service. Biden’s principal domestic policy advisor, Susan Rice also has championed community service as a means of healing national wounds.
So, Biden is both tapping an exceptional talent and providing a rising star an opportunity to demonstrate his skills on a national stage. Just as service in the Senate and as Secretary of State eliminated any questions about Hillary Clinton’s qualifications to serve as president, four years of service in the Biden administration will do the same thing for Mayor Pete. It is also not unreasonable to speculate that after a year or so at Transportation, Biden may give Buttigieg an opportunity to work in an international or national security role.
Any opportunity to further his political career would, of course, be sidetracked should Buttigieg become involved in a scandal or trouble of the type involving several Trump appointees. Is trouble likely? Buttigieg’s track record, though currently slim, suggests he has a high probability of executing the office of Transportation Secretary with little risk of scandal. Absent something negative happening, Buttigieg could emerge as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2024 if Joe Biden doesn’t run for re-election and Kamala Harris’ performance as VP doesn’t meet the public’s current high expectations, or 2028.
Given that the new president has not yet even been sworn into office, it’s too much to hum “A Star is Born,” but good things lie in Mayor Pete’s future.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.