Buttigieg, Harris sort out their roles for Biden

Pete Buttigieg visited two states following the Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, touring local projects like a highway in Nevada that could be revamped because of the legislation.

Buttigieg for weeks has promoted the infrastructure deal in television interviews and visits around the country. It all reflects Buttigieg’s unusually high-profile role in the Biden administration — particularly for a secretary of Transportation.

Of course, Buttigieg isn’t just any secretary of Transportation. He’s a former presidential candidate who rocketed to success in the 2020 Democratic primary. The former South Bend, Ind., mayor, a relative unknown before primary season, ended up beating Biden in the Iowa caucuses.

He’s the most successful openly gay presidential candidate in U.S. history, and his military background and centrist credentials have made him a valuable surrogate for Biden in building support for the bipartisan infrastructure deal.

Buttigieg’s place in the administration also sets up a natural competition of sorts with Vice President Harris, the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidate in Biden’s Cabinet.

Harris, the first female and first Black vice president, has long been seen as the natural heir apparent to Biden, who is 78 years old. Biden has said he plans to run for reelection, but his age means there will still be questions about 2024. And Buttigieg is another up-and-coming star who may see himself as the future of his party.

The former California senator has also had a rockier start to the administration and is saddled with two issues — voting rights and immigration — that are valued by the Democratic base but are more difficult to see progress in the near future.

“She has to see him as some kind of threat,” one Biden ally said of Harris and Buttigieg. “He’s been all over the place on infrastructure, and that’s been front and center for us.” 

Harris is viewed as the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2028 and even in 2024 should Biden decide against running.

And there are no signs of a rivalry. While the two could be competitors again in a future primary, both are working together now to advance Biden’s agenda.

“Politics at its core is competitive and I’m sure all the big-name principals are to a certain extent competitive with each other,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “But my sense is as of now everyone is pulling in the same direction for Team Joe and ‘Let’s make the Biden presidency a success.’” 

Democratic sources familiar with their relationship describe Buttigieg and Harris as having a good personal rapport. One source noted that they became particularly close after the primary, when Buttigieg played then-Vice President Mike Pence in debate prep to help Harris get ready for the vice presidential debate. The two spent a lot of time together and have “a lot of mutual respect for one another,” the person said.

“There was a really genuine collaboration with a lot of mutual respect,” said another source familiar with the debate preparations, noting it took place over three weeks and lasted as long as eight hours on a given day. “They really work well together and they like one another a lot.” 

Chasten Buttigieg, Pete Buttigieg’s husband, and Doug Emhoff, Harris’s husband, are also friendly.

Chasten Buttigieg hosted an Instagram Live with Doug Emhoff about life on the campaign trail last year, and both their spouses dropped in on the interview. Emhoff joined Pete Buttigieg for a trip to North Carolina to promote infrastructure in April, as part of a series of trips around Amtrak’s 50th anniversary. 

Another Democratic source said that it’s too early for Buttigieg or other Democrats to be thinking about 2024 or future political prospects, particularly given that Biden has said he intends to run for a second term. Buttigieg is “really focused on the task at hand” in the Biden administration and not his political future, the person said. 

“Normally the role of Transportation secretary isn’t super out front or glossy, and I think that because of who Pete is and also this moment and also how much trust Biden has in Pete, it’s allowed him to really make it a marquis Cabinet post,” the source said. “I think it’s an exciting moment for him and his career.” 

Another source emphasized, “He really doesn’t want to get out ahead of Biden. He’s deferential to the president.” 

Harris is by Biden’s side for most events and has been involved in infrastructure, both behind the scenes and publicly. She met with senators on Capitol Hill earlier this month to discuss the bill before the Senate vote, which she presided over. She also delivered remarks before Biden celebrating the development later the same day. 

After Biden’s jobs plan was unveiled earlier this year, Harris embarked on a number of trips to highlight its provisions, including stops in Oakland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee.

As vice president, she’s also been asked to take on more than any Cabinet secretary, including the root causes of migration.

“She’s being asked to take on projects that are, if not unsolvable, they can’t be dealt with easily and in a short period of time,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Harris will take her second international trip as vice president later this month when she goes to Singapore and Vietnam to meet with government leaders to discuss regional security. Her trip comes as the administration looks to counter Chinese influence in that region.

Smikle argued that Harris’s political future, unlike that of Buttigieg and other members of the Cabinet, is inextricably tied to Biden’s given her role as his running mate and now vice president. 

“She will take more of the credit and more of the blame than Buttigieg will in his position,” Smikle said. 

Buttigieg’s higher-profile-than-expected role in the administration could also lead to more scrutiny. The Washington Post reported Friday that a provision of the infrastructure bill would create a new Transportation Department agency that would not give civil service protections to employees, which has angered worker unions.

The dynamic between Harris and Buttigieg is similar to that which played out in past administrations where two politicians with political ambitions took on high-profile roles.  

“Anybody who becomes vice president becomes elevated to becoming a presidential candidate. It clearly boosts somebody in a way that no other office does. By the same token, it’s not unusual for there to be more than one person who emerges as a possible future presidential candidate in an administration,” said Joel Goldstein, vice presidential scholar and professor emeritus at Saint Louis University.

Biden himself can perhaps empathize with the situation of both Harris and Buttigieg.

Clinton, the secretary of State during the Obama administration’s first term, became the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 with the blessing of then-President Obama.

“Normally the secretary of Transportation, you’re not one of the high-profile members of the administration, but the fact that a lot of his issues are priorities and particularly as they fit into climate change and the fact that he’s such an effective spokesperson, I think, has meant that he’s emerged as somebody who’s been very effective,” Goldstein said of Buttigieg. 

One of the Democratic sources described Buttigieg and Harris as having built a solid friendship but acknowledged there is a question hanging over them about what comes after Biden. 

“I just don’t think that people are really going there quite yet,” the person said.

And a former senior Obama official put it this way: “At this early stage, the infrastructure victory accrues to Biden and not to any individual Cabinet member.”

 Alex Gangitano contributed.  

Tags Barack Obama Doug Emhoff Hillary Clinton Immigration Infrastructure Mike Pence Pete Buttigieg voting rights
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