President Biden is a less-than-ideal messenger five months out from the midterms, partly because of his meandering speaking style and partly because he lacks the go-for-the-jugular instinct that Democrats desperately need. The vice president does not want to upstage the president and has (fairly or not) not won over the American people.
Meanwhile, Biden is stuck with lousy approval ratings, resulting in great frustration among Democrats. As my colleague Dan Balz asked, “Is it a problem of messaging or of policy, of words without impact or simply a sign of a weary and unhappy electorate that has stopped paying close attention to a president?” Whatever the answer, the White House seems tongue-tied as the Republican Party engages in performative politics designed to whip up its base.
The good news is that there is a voice in the administration who is consistently on point, aggressive (without getting nasty) and likable: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The bad news is that his job doesn’t normally lend itself to providing message discipline for the White House and the party.
Buttigieg illustrated his skills on Sunday in an appearance on ABC News’s “This Week.” Asked whether Biden should be doing more on inflation, Buttigieg concisely explained that it is the president’s top priority, reeled off actions Biden has taken on fuel prices and quickly pivoted to a point Biden makes too infrequently: The GOP has no “concrete” plan to fight inflation.
“We’ve heard something from Sen. Rick Scott about raising taxes on lower and middle-income Americans," Buttigieg said. "There’s a continued push to ... remove the ACA. And you have, you know, continued culture wars.”
He returned to the point later in the interview: “There is our approach, which is to find solutions, to invest in our supply chains ... to do everything that we can to lower costs for American families, like the cost of insulin and prescription drugs,” he said. “And then there’s the other path that congressional conservatives have put forward, which doesn’t really speak much to inflation. It’s, you know, raising taxes on lower- and middle-class families, making a lot of political hay out of the very real challenges that families are feeling and going to war with Mickey Mouse.”
Buttigieg also deftly responded to the charge that Biden has not done anything to lower gas prices. He argued that the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the waiving of ethanol restrictions helped “stabilize" fuel prices. Moreover, he stressed that “the price of gasoline is not set by a dial in the Oval Office,” but by oil companies that are choosing not to fully exploit their oil leases. In response to that, Buttigieg pointed out, “the president has called for a ‘Use it or lose it’ policy” that puts a price on unused permits. But, he argued, “so far congressional Republicans have blocked action to do something like that.”
Buttigieg delivers the succinct message Biden struggles to convey: The White House brought back the economy. The president empathizes with families’ economic pain and does everything humanly possible to address inflation while allowing the Federal Reserve to do its job as the primary inflation fighter.
Buttigieg even told Democrats how to defend their record:
Look at where this administration began, where there was a very real risk of recession, if not depression, and an American Rescue Plan that has made enormous differences in communities across the country. Pretty much any mayor I talk to talks about the different investments that they’re making in their community thanks to that, and along with that, extraordinary job growth, exceptionally low unemployment, increases in income for American families. That didn’t just happen on its own.
Just as the administration did to promote the infrastructure bill, it could increase Buttigieg’s appearances or even elevate him with a couple of other able communicators (e.g., director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm) to lead the charge on lowering costs for families.
Still, there’s only so much a transportation secretary can do. Biden might consider giving him a promotion as others leave (or are urged to leave). Since he’s the best messenger the administration has, Buttigieg needs a post commensurate with his talent, even if it means booting out less adept advisers.