Serving as secretary of transportation has not been a springboard to the presidency, but that could change if the chips fall right for Pete Buttigieg.
While many have assumed Vice President Kamala Harris is best positioned to be the Democratic standard-bearer in the 2024 election if President Biden passes on a second term, there is another school of thought that Mr. Buttigieg could be next in line.
After all, the 40-year-old has been given a massive platform to showcase his political chops and communication skills as the public face of the $1 trillion infrastructure spending that is wildly popular and received bipartisan votes. It dishes out goodies to every corner of the U.S., such as improving urban airports and expanding broadband internet access to rural areas.
Mr. Buttigieg is directly overseeing the infrastructure law’s $500 billion in new spending, while the rest is reprogrammed from previously allocated but unused funds.
“He has a perfect opportunity to go across the country and communicate directly with voters, but especially to some degree Democrats,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “In the next year, he will be the king of ribbon-cuttings across the nation.”
Mr. Biden insists he is running for a second term.
The 79-year-old said last week he‘d welcome another showdown with former President Donald Trump, who is teasing a comeback.
Doubts, though, swirl around Mr. Biden‘s future, particularly if Democrats take a drubbing in the midterm elections and he fails to turn around his lagging polling numbers.
For Democrats, it is a touchy subject. They don’t want to get crosswise with the boss, but they privately worry about the strength of their bench if he opts against another go.
Speculation over who is on deck starts with Ms. Harris. She has been a heartbeat away from the presidency for 14 months. But the poll numbers for Ms. Harris, the first female vice president, are worse than Mr. Biden‘s.
That has shifted attention to Mr. Buttigieg, the first openly gay man to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
Mr. Buttigieg outperformed Ms. Harris in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race, rising from relative obscurity as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to win the Iowa presidential caucuses and finish second in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
Concerns over his relative inexperience, his sexuality and his struggles to connect with Black voters and far-left voters eventually proved to be too much.
Now Mr. Buttigieg is stiff-arming the 2024 talk.
“What I am considering is what it is going to take the over half a trillion dollars that has been entrusted to my department and make sure the American people see over a half a trillion dollars worth of value out of it, and that is tying up every gray cell that I have and it is going to require total commitment from me,” he said recently on the Yahoo! News “Skullduggery” podcast. “So that is where my focus is.”
Nonetheless, a possible Harris-Buttigieg 2024 rematch showdown is generating a lot of buzz.
“I think you are going to see Kamala and Pete Buttigieg in a death battle — Mad Max at Thunderdome,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said this week on Fox News.
A Harvard-Harris poll released this week found Ms. Harris, 28% would be the preferred pick of Democratic voters in a Bidenless race, followed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 15%, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, 9%, and Mr. Buttigieg, 8%.
Ms. Harris, the first Black American and first person of South Asian descent to be vice president, has faced consistent criticism since taking the oath of office.
Mr. Biden didn’t do her any favors when he tasked her with stemming the flow of immigrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries, putting her smack in the middle of the hyper-divisive immigration debate.
“There is no doubt that the White House gave the vice president a portfolio of issues that she is in charge of which have been nothing but anvils,” Mr. Levesque said. “They are issues that are almost impossible to solve or show progress on. They are very important but hard to show progress on.”
Mr. Buttigieg, at the moment, arguably has the most enviable Cabinet job.
With his colleagues stuck sorting out what to do about soaring gas prices, immigration and foreign conflicts, Mr. Buttigieg is in charge of distributing billions of dollars of taxpayer money to improve roads, bridges, sewers, drinking water, mass transit and broadband internet.
David Pepper, former chair of the Ohio Democrats, said Mr. Buttigieg has the chance to shine.
“I still think for the very reason his initial campaign took off, he is just an incredibly talented communicator,” Mr. Pepper said. “To be in a position where you get to be the person who goes around the country and delivers the good news that something is coming and later goes back and says, ‘Here it is: promise made, promise kept.’ That is a really big opportunity.”
The job also has provided Mr. Buttigieg with a platform to carve out relationships across the country, touch on some of the Democrats’ other popular priorities, weigh in on the news of the day and respond to his critics.
Mr. Buttigieg, who recently adopted twins with his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, made headlines during his recent appearance on the “Skullduggery” podcast when he said the new “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida is hurting children. He also pushed back against remarks by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican, that “Pete Buttigieg can take his electric vehicles and his bicycles, and he and his husband can stay out of our girl’s bathrooms.”
Mr. Buttigieg, who is a gay cisgender man, called her jabs “nonsensical.”
“The reason you hear somebody like that making nonsensical, literally nonsensical comments like that — I don’t know what you’d do with an electric vehicle in any bathroom — is because they don’t want to talk about what we’re actually working on,” he said.
“What we didn’t hear was any kind of critique of our actual infrastructure policy. This is a good policy, it is wildly popular, and it is the right thing to do,” he said. ”So they are going keep tripling down on anything that can divide, and demonize, and demoralize and through that capture attention.”