While it may not be the appointment he was angling for, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, who nearly wrested the Democratic nomination from more experienced candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden, will take a major career leap if Biden becomes the next president.
Buttigieg was named as Biden’s nominee for transportation secretary Wednesday.
Buttigieg would be the first openly gay person confirmed by the Senate to a Cabinet position.
Although President Donald Trump appointed Ambassador Richard Grenell to serve as his director of national intelligence—a more prestigious and influential Cabinet-level role—congressional Democrats threatened to torpedo his nomination. Trump instead named then-Rep. John Ratcliffe to the post.
Biden, nonetheless, hailed the presumptive milestone while saying the 38-year-old Buttigieg can be instrumental in the fight against economic inequality, institutional racism and climate change. It remains unclear how he will do so while maintaining his focus on the job overseeing the nation’s transportation needs.
Biden has made diversity a top criterion in his would-be appointments, though, along with cronyism.
He promised his administration would have more women and people of color than ever, including “a Cabinet that is opening doors and breaking down barriers, and accessing the full brains and talent we have so much of.”
Biden said Buttigieg offers “a new voice with new ideas determined to move past old politics.”
“We need someone who knows how to work with state, local and federal agencies,” Biden said, noting that highways are in disrepair and that some bridges “are on the verge of collapse.”
Beyond standard transportation fixes, which are easier to promise than for administrations to get through Congress, Biden wants to rejuvenate the post-coronavirus pandemic economy and create thousands of green jobs by making environmentally friendly retrofits and public works improvements.
The president-elect noted that much of the nation, including his home state of Delaware, face the risk of rising sea levels.
A more immediate challenge, though, will be enforcing Biden’s promised mask-wearing mandate for airplanes and public transportation systems to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“At its best, transportation makes the American dream possible, getting people and goods to where they need to be, directly and indirectly creating good-paying jobs,” Buttigieg said.
“At its worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities can reinforce racial, economic and environmental injustice, dividing or isolating neighborhoods, undermining government’s basic role to empower everyone to thrive.”
Buttigieg mentioned his affinity for trains while acknowledging that he would be only the “second-biggest” Amtrak enthusiast in the administration, given that Biden rode the rails for years between Washington and Wilmington, Delaware, while serving in the Senate.
Buttigieg also mentioned that he proposed to his husband, Chasten, at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
Buttigieg was the only Cabinet choice, after Biden’s defense secretary nominee, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, to appear at a solo announcement ceremony rather than be introduced with other picks.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Buttigieg was “more than ready to finally address our nation’s infrastructure crisis.”
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., applauded Biden for tapping someone with “plenty of intellect, vision and drive” to take a shot at modernizing America’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.
Others weren’t as thrilled.
“I don’t know him at all,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a pivotal Republican in the closely divided Senate, told reporters in Washington.
She instead brought up Rahm Emanuel, a former Chicago mayor and chief of staff to President Barack Obama. Emanuel was mentioned as a potential candidate for several Biden Cabinet posts but drew strong backlash from progressives.
“I think Rahm Emanuel would have been a strong choice,” Collins said.
As Biden, Harris and Buttigieg talked about how they got to know one another during the contested Democratic primary, it was easy to imagine the 2024 campaign beginning to take shape as the Cabinet introduction unfolded.
Biden, 78, has said he sees himself as a bridge to a new generation of leaders such as Buttigieg.
If Biden opts not to run again in 2024, his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would be his political heir apparent. But that may not stop Buttigieg and other rising Democrats from launching primary challenges.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press