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WASHINGTON — On March 4, little more than a year after presiding over his final meeting with the South Bend, Ind., City Council, 39-year-old U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sat in the Oval Office preparing for his next incarnation.
The precocious former mayor had already run for president, impressing some and annoying others, and had been appointed to a Cabinet-level position by President Biden, his former rival. Now he was on the verge of using his new position as a bully pulpit for massive social and economic transformation.
Within weeks, the Biden administration will introduce a massive infrastructure plan that, if realized, could be as transformative as the Works Progress Administration was during the Great Depression. But much like that famed antecedent, the infrastructure plan is sure to be criticized by Republicans as a ploy to usher in socialism.
An early outline of the plan, published on Monday by the New York Times, has the Biden administration spending $3 trillion on everything from rural Internet to green housing. Few other details are available, in particular how Biden will find the requisite congressional support, and funding, for the plan. But the fight over infrastructure is coming, and Buttigieg will be in the middle of the scrum.
First and foremost, he'll be the administration’s salesman, making the case to Republican governors and mayors that supporting the infrastructure plan will be in their best interests. He has also pledged to turn the Transportation Department into an unlikely crucible of progressive policy, vowing when he first came to Washington that the agency would “rise to the climate challenge.” He has also promised to apply an “equity lens” to infrastructure projects.
“Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources,” Buttigieg tweeted in December. “In the Biden-Harris administration, we will make righting these wrongs an imperative.”
National infrastructure, racial equity and climate change are an ambitious portfolio for the young secretary. They also sound like the sturdy pillars of a Democratic presidential campaign, something Buttigieg won’t talk about but that is not lost on his former staffers.
“He gets to be Build Back Better,” a former staffer on his presidential campaign said, echoing one of the slogans of the Biden presidential campaign. “He gets blank checks. He can tie himself to feel-good projects coming out of the administration.” He also gets to tour the nation, introducing himself to prospective voters, and tout those aforementioned feel-good projects to media both national and local.
The goal, as one flattering recent profile on Buttigieg put it, is to “quest to make transportation cool again.” More practically, the administration believes there is no serious constituency advocating for keeping the nation’s infrastructure in a state of disrepair. The challenge will be in preventing Republicans from painting the plan as tunnels for turtles, a series of giveaways to progressive groups for progressive imperatives.
“The secretary believes that no matter where you live and what your politics are, the American people will benefit from an investment in infrastructure that is focused on jobs, climate and equity,” Transportation Department spokesman Ben Halle told Yahoo News. “And he will work with the White House to deliver that message directly to the American people.”
In an administration rife with Ivy League strivers and Washington insiders, the man formerly known as Mayor Pete has somehow stayed relevant. He is the youngest member of the Cabinet but comes across as remarkably self-possessed. And even though his political career has benefited from a series of smart political calculations, he has been burnished by the glow of AOC-like authenticity. When he was filmed riding a bike in Washington, D.C., a social media sensation ensued. It’s hard to imagine Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack engendering similar enthusiasm were he to be spotted cycling down Massachusetts Avenue.
The White House knows that even some centrist Democrats will be reluctant to endorse another massive spending bill so quickly after passing the $1.9 trillion relief bill; Republicans have made clear that they will oppose it outright. Democrats are fully aware of the opposition — several days ago Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., was caught on microphone telling Buttigieg that Democrats would probably resort to using a process known as budget reconciliation to push the infrastructure plan through Congress. That means salesmanship won’t matter as much as brute majoritarian politics.
Still, an infrastructure tour could be politically useful to both the White House and Buttigieg, who has shown unusual skill at seizing political opportunities that others may dismiss.
He eagerly endorsed Biden during the presidential campaign, and just as eagerly campaigned for him. The same White House that is about to send him to talk about highways and bridges well remembers the relish with which Buttigieg made appearances on Fox News, skewering the hosts’ pro-Trump arguments. Lately he has been everywhere touting the coronavirus relief package, with which an infrastructure plan would dovetail neatly for Democrats.
“The secretary is focused on making sure that the funding is reaching transit agencies, airports and Amtrak, all of which have suffered decreases in ridership and revenue, and all of which continue to play an important role during the pandemic,” Halle said. In recent days, Buttigieg has given interviews to Rolling Stone, a CBS outlet in Pittsburgh and a Baton Rouge, La., outlet.
“Transportation policy is health policy,” he said in the last of those interviews, thus seemingly adding yet another giant slice of policy to his already crowded plate.
“You see him on ‘The View,’ you see him all over cable, serving as a surrogate for the administration,” a second former staffer of his said. (All the former Buttigieg staffers contacted for this article were happy to speak about their former boss, albeit only if their names were not to be used in print.) He could do anything from Fox News to local news, the second staffer said, which he speculated would make Buttigieg “invaluable” in fending off ideological attacks from Tucker Carlson or talking to a local affiliate in North Carolina about rising coastal waters.
The Transportation Department declined to make the secretary available for an interview with Yahoo News.
In media appearances, Buttigieg comes off as studied but not scripted. He is the ultimate prepared student, confident as he heads into the exam room. And that makes the Biden administration confident that it can send him forth from Washington without much anxiety. Given the moment’s tense political environment, such anxiety is not unwarranted. When Vice President Kamala Harris made an innocent slip of the tongue last month in an interview with a West Virginia station, referring to “abandoned land mines” instead of “abandoned mine lands,” a politically unhelpful feud with Sen. Joe Manchin followed.
Whether Buttigieg will be more than just a pitchman is unclear. “The president and the White House have asked the secretary to play a leading role in developing the president's recovery agenda,” acknowledged a member of the White House communications staff. He did not give a timeline for when an infrastructure proposal would be unveiled by the White House, adding that the president and vice president would be traveling the country to tout the just-passed American Rescue Plan for much of the rest of March.
Buttigieg recently said that an infrastructure plan would be released “in short order” but also did not elaborate.
Democrats in Congress are already working on an infrastructure plan, which could be significantly more expensive — and contentious — than the coronavirus relief bill. “It is going to be green and it is going to be big,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., told the Associated Press.
Close advisers to Buttigieg insist that his role in framing and selling the expected infrastructure initiative has nothing to do with politics or a possible second White House run, with one former senior adviser (the third former staffer to speak to Yahoo News under the condition of anonymity) going so far as to call any speculation about 2024 as “stupid” and a symbol of the inability of the Washington press corps to focus on anything resembling the real issue.
Still, such speculation isn’t likely to go away. The next presidential primary doesn’t look like it will be an auspicious one for Buttigieg, when he would have to challenge either a sitting president (Biden) or a sitting vice president on the cusp of becoming the first Black woman to sit in the Oval Office (Harris). Then again, there’s always 2028 and ’32. For that matter, by the time the 2040 presidential election rolls around, Buttigieg will be all of 58, which is to say 20 years younger than Biden is today.
“He plays chess while other people play checkers,” the first former staffer said while surmising that a 2028 run was likely in the works.
Whether such a run is feasible or not is largely dependent on how Buttigieg does in the coming months. He does well on late night, and he easily impresses college crowds with his casual references to James Joyce. But the residents of Boulder, Colo., are not the ones who need convincing. He will have to win over conservatives who may be wary of spending trillions on an infrastructure package, or of hearing from a 39-year-old Harvard graduate about why such spending is necessary.
“The secretary believes we have a once-in-a-generation moment to do something big,” his spokesman Halle said.
The fact that Buttigieg comes from a small, Midwestern town could be a benefit, said a Republican staffer on the House Transportation Committee.
“The fact that he was the mayor of a smaller city was actually a positive,” the Republican staffer said. “A lot of members on our side are from rural districts. They are very concerned that rural infrastructure needs could get left behind.”
Buttigieg will face scrutiny not only from Republicans but from Democrats curious about his political future and unwilling to countenance bromides about needing to focus on the work at hand. Earlier this month, Politico noted that while press materials from across the federal government studiously referred to the “Biden-Harris administration,” Buttigieg’s department was a holdout, leaving out the name of the vice president, who could become a political rival in the years to come, as both he and Harris seek to become the face of a post-Clinton-Obama-Biden party.
Since then, Buttigieg has gotten on board, like the quick study he has always been.
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