By Barbara Joanna Lucas – Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg ranks above the vice president as the most viable Democratic contender for 2024, according to The Washington Post. Don’t expect that to last, no thanks to Kamala Harris.
Leadership is often a collection of small tests, where the person in charge either rises to the challenge or doesn’t. Thus far, Secretary Pete has flunked on some big challenges.
In fairness to him, he has faced more challenges than your typical Secretary of Transportation. Then again, few others viewed this Cabinet post as a springboard to the White House. Had he tackled these big challenges successfully, he could be cruising toward the presidency. That hasn’t been the case.
This job is typically for ribbon-cutting, speechifying and softball TV interviews. In the Netflix political drama “House of Cards,” when fictional villain President Frank Underwood offers to make his vanquished opponent Will Conway the secretary of transportation, Conway responded, “That’s the job you give to the congressman from nowhere,” and declined.
Of course, Buttigieg’s ambitions are understandable.
Barring a sharp string of successes, that’s likely the pinnacle of his electoral successes on the national stage after a comedy of errors and failures running the Department of Transportation.
Nina Turner, the national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, may have stated the potential NeverPete 2024 movement succinctly, tweeting: “What’s happening with the railroads, airlines & the supply chain is a result of a small city mayor being made the Secretary of Transportation as a means to pad his resume for President. Secretary Buttigieg is a prime example of failing up.”
The Christmas holiday season has been consumed with coverage of the massive flight delays. Buttigieg has announced plans to investigate the airlines, primarily Southwest, which cancelled about 62 percent of its scheduled flights. He had already proposed an airline consumer regulation to refund flights delayed for more than three hours.
You might recall that summer wasn’t a great time to fly either, and in September, Buttigieg told the country, “I think it’s going to get better by the holidays.”
“We’re really pressing the airlines to deliver better service,” the transportation secretary said on “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” He added, “So many people have been delayed, been canceled, it happened to me several times this summer. And the fact is they need to be ready to service the tickets that they’re selling. If you’ve ever been mistreated by an airline, if they haven’t given you the refund they owe you, if they haven’t lived up to their customer service obligations, we will have your back.”
The promise didn’t come to fruition for Christmas travelers.
Yet, his track record in previous crises—where he either failed or just didn’t show up for work—doesn’t inspire confidence for improving air travel.
On top of that, he’s hardly the most empathetic figure considering he took at least 18 taxpayer-funded private jet flights since taking office. So, he doesn’t exactly get the plight of the air traveler, nor is he focused all that much on his own carbon footprint. He traveled on the jets to Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Nevada among other states, perhaps seeking to keep a public profile in key primary states for 2024. Yet all this could backfire.
This leaves plenty of room for political opponents to have their fun.
As Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., making a longshot bid for House Speaker, tweeted: “If @USDOT is serious about addressing Southwest’s recent implosion, it should prohibit its leader @SecretaryPete from flying private. Why wasn’t he aware of these challenges beforehand? Late to the game and out of touch.”
An aura of out-of-touchness also seemed on display in July, as Buttigieg testified before the House Transportation Committee and was questioned about high gas prices. His response—buy more electric cars.
“The more pain we are all experiencing from the high price of gas, the more benefit there is for those who can access electric vehicles,” Buttigieg told the committee.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., later jumped in at the hearing to explain to the secretary, “It would take four times as much electricity to charge the average household’s cars as the average household uses on air conditioning.” He added, “So if we reach the goal by 2030 that Biden has, of a 50 percent adoption [of electric vehicles] instead of 100 percent adoption, that means the average household would use twice as much electricity charging one of their cars as they would use for all of the air conditioning that they use for the entire year.”
For a transportation secretary to use pricy electric vehicles as a solution to high gas prices would be like the Housing and Urban Development secretary ordering the homeless to buy mansions to solve homelessness.
The former mayor doesn’t seem ready for primetime.
Of course, this speculation of Pete 2024 leans heavily on President Joe Biden not running for reelection, which seems a little less likely than before the midterm elections. But if Biden bows out and various Democrats scurry to run for the presidency, Buttigieg will have a difficult record to defend.
He was affectionately known simply as Mayor Pete in his presidential run. But as an ambitious South Bend mayor, the only realistic outcome of his presidential run was to gain a Cabinet post, to, just as Turner said, buttress the resume for a future presidential run.
Secretary Pete certainly sounds much better than Mayor Pete on a presidential debate stage. Having a spot in the Biden Cabinet was supposed to offer gravitas.
The problem is that Secretary Pete has had to face an unexpected supply chain crisis that saw American households and companies do without basic goods because of shortages of toilet paper, raw construction materials and key tech components such as semiconductors.
He was in office for a near railroad worker strike that was solved questionably. And now, we have the Christmas travel chaos.
For the most part, he flunked each time. Granted, the rail strike was averted, but through an act of Congress that the Democratic Party’s union base will likely see as an act of betrayal by what Biden promised would be the most pro-union administration in history.
Perhaps the only person who suddenly goes missing in action during a crisis more often than Mayor Pete is Clark Kent, and Clark has a better excuse.
Throwing the rail unions under the tracks was made all the worse since the point of contention was about paid sick leave. Secretary Pete literally phoned it in during the rail negotiations because he was vacationing for a month in Porto, Portugal. He even posted a selfie video from the trip while walking through an airport.
During the supply-chain crisis in 2021, at the same time the Biden administration hoped to push through its infrastructure bill, Buttigieg was on paternity leave for four weeks after they adopted two newborns.
“Pete Buttigieg will take paid vacation in Europe for days on end but doesn’t think rail workers should get more than one day of sick leave,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., among the handful of Republicans who voted against the bill to end the strike. “This is the same guy who took months of paid leave at the height of the supply chain crisis. If rail workers showed up for work as rarely as Buttigieg does, the country would fall apart.”
Just as his gusto 2020 performances in Iowa and New Hampshire are likely the high point of his national electoral success, Transportation Secretary will quite likely be his highest point in government. Why would a future Democratic president choose to tap Buttigieg to run the State Department or any other department at this point?
Instead, he’ll face a likely grilling by the soon-to-be Republican-controlled House Transportation Committee, as the GOP sharpens it knives for oversight, as will other Democratic politicians, including Vice President Harris, who see his clear vulnerabilities in a potential primary battle.
Barbara Joanna Lucas is a writer and researcher in Northern Virginia. She has been a healthcare professional, political blogger, is a proud dog mom, and news junkie. Follow her on Twitter @BasiaL.