Quick: Name President Donald Trump’s transportation secretary.
Chances are you can’t. (It’s Elaine Chao, who also happens to be married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)
Which says something about the profile of the average transportation secretary. It’s low.
All of which raises this question: Why would Pete Buttigieg, who came from nowhere to become a top-tier candidate in the 2020 presidential race, agree to be the transportation secretary in the now-forming administration of President-elect Joe Biden? Isn’t that a little, well, small, for someone of Buttigieg’s political abilities and ambitions?
While those questions make some sense – no ambitious political kid dreams of growing up to be the transportation secretary, after all – they also sort of miss the point. Or, the point(s).
1) The highest office that Buttigieg has ever held is as the mayor of his hometown of South Bend, Indiana – population 101,000. He’s never worked in Washington. He’s never managed and navigated not only a massive agency, but also the even more massive federal bureaucracy. Assuming he is confirmed, Buttigieg will be in charge of a department with 55,000 employees.
2) Biden has made rebuilding America’s infrastructure a key goal of his presidency. (“Infrastructure Week” was a punchline during Trump’s four years in office.) In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Biden made specific mention of just the sorts of initiatives that will be under the purview of Buttigieg.
Here’s the key bit:
“That’s why my economic plan is all about jobs, dignity, respect, and community. Together, we can, and we will, rebuild our economy. And when we do, we’ll not only build it back, we’ll build it back better. With modern roads, bridges, highways, broadband, ports and airports as a new foundation for economic growth. With pipes that transport clean water to every community. With 5 million new manufacturing and technology jobs so the future is made in America.”
That focus – assuming Biden makes good on it – puts Buttigieg on the front lines of an effort to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of America – something that lots of presidents have talked about but never gotten around to actually doing.
3) The proposed Biden Cabinet doesn’t have a lot of proven TV communicators. Love Buttigieg or hate him, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he’s very good on TV. And any successful administration has to have people who can go on cable and Sunday talk shows to sell its priorities. Which puts Buttigieg in prime position to be one of the best-known public faces of the administration.
4) Buttigieg is a nerd. Yes, there’s no question that there are political calculations at work in his decision. (See No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3.) “At core, he’s a deeply wonky guy whose favorite board games include Ticket to Ride and Risk,” tweeted Midwestern-based journalist Adam Wren. Heck, Buttigieg used to talk about South Bend’s “smart sewer” program on the stump in the presidential race!
Add that all up, and the transportation secretary job makes perfect sense for Buttigieg as he seeks to build out and burnish a resume for a future national bid.