President-elect Joe Biden will name former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg as his transportation secretary. “Buttigieg, 38, built his presidential bid on calls to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders, something Biden himself called ‘absolutely essential,’ ” The Post reports. “He was the first openly gay major party candidate to win delegates in a bid for the White House, and his campaign was aided by the supportive presence of his husband, Chasten.”
While other Biden nominees have raised some hackles from either Republicans or another group of Democrats (or both, in the case of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, named to head the Pentagon), Buttigieg’s selection was received with widespread praise and something we have not seen before: genuine glee.
Certainly, another “first” — an openly gay man holding a Cabinet post — explains part of the appeal. The reaction also reflects widespread agreement that Buttigieg acquitted himself exceptionally well for a newcomer to national politics throughout the Democratic primary, winning praise for his extraordinary verbal acuity, his happy warrior demeanor and his Renaissance man profile (e.g., he is a classical pianist and speaks seven languages in addition to English).
If Democrats had been selecting the award for the most congenial media figure, Buttigieg might have won in a landslide. His continued appearances on Fox News drew raves for his ability to disarm hosts and speak to a hostile audience. As a fresh face, a great communicator and a policy whiz, he seems to be a recipe for an enthusiastic reception.
There is something else at play as well: For all the talk of serving as a bridge to the next generation, Biden’s Cabinet picks have largely built a bridge back to the Obama administration with a flock of familiar faces whom Biden trusts and knows well (e.g., Susan E. Rice, Tom Vilsack, Janet L. Yellen). In defending the picks, Biden aides have stressed that he ran on competence, problem-solving and experience. In that regard, he certainly has delivered.
But a 78-year-old president-elect and a Cabinet filled with many over the age of 60 understandably make many Democrats concerned. They want to see Cabinet-level picks from that next generation of leaders whom Biden promised to nurture. Some of the criticism is overblown, given the sprinkling of newer names (e.g., Cecilia Rouse to head the Council of Economic Advisers, Avril Haines for director of national intelligence). Nevertheless, the fear that familiarity can crowd out cutting-edge thinking and that cohesiveness can breed groupthink is entirely legitimate. (Plus, some of Biden’s closest friends, such as Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who is said to be on the shortlist for attorney general, have less sterling credentials than those outside his close circle of aides.)
Regardless of whether Democrats are entirely pleased with Biden’s picks — can any one Cabinet meet the Goldilocks requirements of just the right diversity, just the right experience and just the right chemistry? — party members know they need to keep one eye on the future. In 2028 — if not 2024 — there will be a sea change in the array of possible presidential contenders. And in Buttigieg, Democrats can envision one such a top-tier candidate who will be more seasoned, more fully formed in the post-Biden years than he was in 2020.
Buttigieg may find himself in the thick of everything, from climate change and emissions standards to racial equity to infrastructure on the Biden agenda. (And given the short tenure of some White House nominees, Buttigieg may “move up” to even higher-profile roles as other secretaries exit their posts.) The job “could provide an opportunity to make a lasting mark,” The Post reports. And just as important, if confirmed, the perch would give Buttigieg a chance to make a positive, lasting impression. Real excitement in getting the chance to watch a promising career unfold surely explains a good deal of the enthusiasm over his selection.