Connecting state and local government leaders
The secretary of transportation is on the road, talking infrastructure with anyone who will listen.
Pete buttigieg stopped on a spring afternoon to pet an Amtrak-police dog on his way to greet the conductor and the rest of the crew. We were somewhere between Raleigh and Greensboro, North Carolina, traveling between two events aimed at promoting the Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Although Buttigieg came closer to being the Democratic presidential nominee than senators and governors with decades more experience, this is what most of his days as Joe Biden’s secretary of transportation look like: He’s notable enough to have a security escort, but not significant enough to have the train employees stand up when he stops in on their break.
Here’s the winner of the 2020 Iowa caucus, living out his grand political plan to … how exactly would it work? Something like: He takes an inherently snoozer job as a low-ranking Cabinet official, spends a few years quietly kissing up to mostly forgettable members of Congress with talk about railroads and broadband, and going on TV to defend the administration. Along the way, he counts on Biden not to run again and Kamala Harris not to emerge as Biden’s natural heir. If everything comes together perfectly, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, becomes the first president since Herbert Hoover to have come out of the Cabinet.
For now, though, Buttigieg is the public point man for the infrastructure bill. Sure, he’s appearing on cable news and late-night talk shows repping the proposal, leveraging his status as the most recognizable member of Biden’s Cabinet for (the administration hopes) public support. He’s all over Capitol Hill too: Buttigieg has chatted with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key Democratic holdout, and with Shelley Moore Capito, Manchin’s Republican counterpart and the GOP’s lead negotiator on the infrastructure proposal. He texts with Representative Adriano Espaillat of New York about the sins of Robert Moses, the man famous for bulldozing neighborhoods to make way for highways and bridges. He went out to Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio’s houseboat to hear about the history of infrastructure bills and the quirks that make it impossible to get nearly anything out of the Senate, studying up with a man who’s been working on infrastructure in Congress since Buttigieg was in kindergarten. He’s gone to a dog park and for Mexican food with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the leader of the new progressives. He has struck up an odd-couple friendship with Representative Don Young of Alaska, a Republican who has been in the House long enough to have served with 16 previous transportation secretaries, and whose crankiness is legendary on the Hill.
Yet he’s so new to Washington, D.C., that he thought he could persuade Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to back the infrastructure measure—he made the mistake of thinking about the Republican as one of the votes to impeach Donald Trump rather than as the former president of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. Buttigieg’s old friends laugh because when he rides his bicycle around D.C., it has to first be unloaded from a truck by his security aides. He traded his signature no-jacket, shirt-and-tie look from the campaign trail for dark suits. “You’ve got to be a little more buttoned-up now,” he told me a week after the train ride, when we met again outside the Department of Transportation building. His husband, Chasten, had bought him a briefcase. “He’s like, ‘You’re a Cabinet secretary—you probably shouldn’t be walking around carrying a backpack when you go to work.’”
Buttigieg’s wonkiness is at once over-the-top and authentic. At a press conference in Raleigh, the second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, gave a generic answer to why the federal and local governments should invest in attracting an Apple headquarters. Then Buttigieg stepped up to the microphone and provided an impromptu history of the development of the smartphone. A few hours later, passing Durham on the train, he pointed out the american tobacco campus and rattled off a story about how the designers of the Studebaker factory in South Bend came to study these buildings for inspiration. Touring the research campus at North Carolina State University a few hours earlier, he’d rubbed his hands as he walked into a lab for testing asphalt innovations, saying, “I’ve been waiting for this all day.” Biden wanted Buttigieg to bring his calm-but-engaging persona and TV skills to his job—the ease with which he can bat back Fox News hosts or joke around with Reggie Watts, James Corden’s band leader. Now that’s become a joke in their budding relationship; when they’re in the Oval Office, the president will warmly rib him, “How’d you get off of TV and into this meeting?”
Does any of Buttigieg’s new routine move votes? I asked him. “It can’t hurt,” he told me. “If you’re sitting at home, is this really different than a ‘Here comes the highway bill again’? The answer is yes. But if I don’t explain it? We’ve got to create a sense of a rumble, of a moment of transportation and infrastructure in this country. ”
The administration does rely on him. It wasn’t an accident that Buttigieg was the voice who first signaled that Biden was running out of patience with Republicans who claim they want a deal on infrastructure but can’t come up with a workable compromise. If Biden moves forward on infrastructure with just Democrats, he’ll need Americans to feel that he isn’t acting like a partisan. He’ll also need to keep the left wing of the party from revolting if he scales back, because only some of the larger proposal would be possible through the party-line, budget-based reconciliation process that can work around a filibuster. Selling Washington and the country on wherever Biden lands will be Buttigieg’s job too.
In my new book, Battle for the Soul, I trace how Buttigieg came closer to winning the 2020 nomination than almost anyone realized. (He definitely realized it himself.) That’s the irony of Buttigieg’s political career; it was easier for him to win the Iowa caucus than a Senate or governor’s race back home in Indiana, and it was easier for people to envision him as president than to see him in any of the most serious Cabinet jobs. He’s not qualified to be secretary of state, attorney general, Treasury secretary, or defense secretary.
Buttigieg had wanted an administration job that would build out his foreign-policy credentials, but his hopes of being named United Nations ambassador as a sort of apprenticeship in international relations ran up against Biden’s desire to name an experienced diplomat to that post. He had already decided that he didn’t want housing and urban development or education. Transportation didn’t offer foreign-policy experience, but Biden’s emphasis on infrastructure was appealing, as was the president’s idea to have him take the public lead on that effort. “This is the Amtrak president, and he had said that infrastructure is going to be a big part of his agenda, and I can’t think of anyone who would be a stronger spokesperson to sell that agenda than Pete, because that’s what proved true in the campaign,” says Hari Sevugan, who was a deputy campaign manager for Buttigieg’s presidential run and remains in his circle of advisers. In North Carolina, I heard Buttigieg lay out his very Buttigieg-y formulation at a Teamsters hall. “Infrastructure is the theme of this plan. Jobs are the purpose of this plan,” he said. “Some people, when you talk about jobs of the future, they think you’re talking about programming spaceships. I don’t know what they’re talking about. We’re talking about carpenters, electricians—this is creating jobs that exist today.”
If any House Republicans end up supporting an infrastructure deal, Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois will probably be one of them. He’s on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he’s a moderate, and he told me that he’s eager to find a way to a deal. He’d of course heard of Buttigieg, but had never met him before they were in an Oval Office meeting together in March. “Any one of my colleagues who says that we can’t work with Secretary Buttigieg just because he ran for president as a Democrat, I don’t think understands the importance of bipartisanship when it comes to transportation-infrastructure investment,” Davis told me. He doesn’t care about any of Buttigieg’s late-night appearances or the rest of his media tour, and he can’t imagine that any congressional Republican is tuning in. But Davis said that he and his Republican colleagues have been impressed by how often they hear from Buttigieg, and how much he seems to be listening. They’re nowhere near agreement on what an infrastructure bill would include about, say, regulatory language, Davis told me, “but that doesn’t mean that the outreach and his personalization and relationship building has not helped to tone down the rhetoric in D.C. and begin to hopefully get us back to some bipartisan agreement.” Buttigieg seems to have more of a working relationship with Congress than other Cabinet secretaries do, I noted to Davis. “That’s an understatement, to be honest with you,” he responded. They’ve talked about going on a bike ride together in Washington, Davis said. He’s looking forward to it.
Talking with Buttigieg and with people in the White House, I was a little unclear on what all of his efforts add up to. He’s not in charge of writing the legislation. He’s not in charge of the negotiations. He’s a conduit for concerns in Congress to the White House, and priorities from the White House back to Congress. He thinks of himself somewhat like a salesman. But before putting people in the car, he has to leave the showroom floor to check with his managers about how much he can give. Republicans have told him they’re willing to deal, which seems like good news; then they tell him they’re willing to pay for new projects only through implementing user fees and other tolls, which is the one source of revenue that Biden has ruled out. Democrats want more green investment; Biden and Buttigieg both need to get them enthusiastic about perhaps not receiving much more than investment in electric vehicles. “You have to play an inside-outside game when you’re trying to move things in Congress,” Louisa Terrell, Biden’s director of legislative affairs and point person on congressional negotiations, told me. Buttigieg “also can go out to districts, and he really connects big legislation and big dollars and makes it really tangible and makes it change people’s lives.” I asked for specifics, or results. It would be hard to reveal those, Terrell and other White House officials argued, in the middle of negotiations. Or maybe, others in touch with the White House told me, those results don’t really exist.
Buttigieg’s job is more than just TV appearances and meetings on Capitol Hill. When Emily Prince started as an attorney at DOT in 2009, it was before she transitioned, when she publicly identified as a man and was known by her birth name. Barack Obama was president, and Ray LaHood was the transportation secretary. Over the next few years, Prince excelled at work while going through the personal process of deciding to come out and transition in 2014. She ran into problems getting her email address changed to reflect her name, and employees at the help desk laughed at her requests for assistance working through the bureaucracy. Superiors turned down her attempts to get updated versions of several internal awards she’d won for her work writing and enforcing new railroad regulations.
To cope, Prince put Post-it Notes with her new name over her old one on the awards, and that’s how she left them for years, long before Buttigieg started surging in the primary race. She didn’t support him, but her mother did. At the beginning of April, Prince’s mother pushed her to try again, insisting that the new secretary would want to take the issue up. Prince forwarded her mother a weekly email sent to DOT employees, and her mother wrote to the address listed for the secretary at the bottom, asking Buttigieg to review the situation. A few weeks later, one updated plaque arrived. Prince expects the others to follow. “This response,” she told me, “very much seems to me like he understood why what they did in 2014 was sad and hurtful, and wanted to make it right.” She’s never met him, but she was overflowing with praise about “having a queer secretary of transportation,” and how much it means to her that he got involved. “I feel like this is a fresh start. I don’t feel as much of an outsider,” Prince said.
Though former Buttigieg presidential-campaign aides excitedly highlighted Prince’s tweets about her story, arguing that Buttigieg had demonstrated his leadership, he hadn’t been directly involved in getting her the new plaque. I had to sketch out the details of the situation before he said he remembered hearing about it. But Prince’s case is part of a broader cultural shift he’s been overseeing internally. That’s a big lift in itself: The Department of Transportation has 55,000 employees; if it were a city, it’d be about half the size of South Bend. He marveled to me at how “everything touches transportation,” including civil rights and national security, noting that when he was brought in on the response to the Colonial Pipeline hack, he hadn’t been in a secured information room since his days in Navy intelligence.
In the years I’ve covered Buttigieg, I told him, I’ve seen how meticulously he has planned his rise. For example, he told me during his presidential campaign that the reason he took a very non-erudite consulting job at McKinsey after his Rhodes Scholarship was specifically to give himself private-sector experience that could help inform his later political career. When he ran for president, Buttigieg called for voters and policy makers to think about politics in the same long-term way—to think ahead not only to the next election, but to the 2050s. “Part of my objective was to really get people thinking in terms of multi-decade cycles,” he told me. “One of the things that’s really remarkable about this presidency is the sense of awareness that we’re making decisions that are going to affect the rest of this half of the century … God willing, I’ll be there looking back on whether we got it right.” He’s been diligent, though, about pushing off talk about his personal political future. You don’t have a plan? I asked. “Having a plan,” he said, “is not the same as having it all planned out.”
Maybe Buttigieg could be propelled forward as the administrator of Biden’s massive government agenda. Or maybe he could be Harris’s future running mate on a ticket that would represent the diversity of the 21st-century Democratic Party. If they won, their administration would feature a first gentleman and a second gentleman, one former Buttigieg campaign aide said to me, with a laugh. But Trump-style reaction still runs deep in this country, and even a moderate, old, straight, white Democrat won by a narrow enough margin in battleground states that switching a combined 77,000 votes in four states would have given Donald Trump another Electoral College win. Maybe Harris wouldn’t want Buttigieg on the ticket, anyway. Maybe the closest he’ll ever be to the presidency will be getting teased in the Oval Office for being on TV so much.
Edward-Isaac Dovere is a staff writer at The Atlantic.