PHOENIX — Pete Buttigieg has long been a man in a hurry.
Since 2010, he has run for treasurer of Indiana, mayor of South Bend, chair of the Democratic National Committee, and president of the United States. At 39, he is one of the most omnipresent and newly-powerful members of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet. But he says he’s not thinking about what comes next, even as he’s buzzed about as a potential Biden heir.
“I’d say the other thing that I’m really enjoying about this job, although it’s very demanding and obviously requiring a lot, is that this is the least I have had to think about campaigns and elections in about a decade and that’s a very good thing,” he told POLITICO on Friday, amidst people in hard hats and bright yellow safety vests in a construction zone near Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
While Buttigieg says he’s not contemplating the race to be Biden’s successor, inside the West Wing, others are imagining it for him. His name is sometimes discussed by aides as a natural Democratic presidential nominee in 2028 — or 2024 if the president opts not to run.
“Nobody in the West Wing shuts that down,” said one person with direct knowledge of the conversations. “It’s very open.”
The chatter has frustrated some staffers of color who see it as disrespectful to Kamala Harris — the first Black woman vice president — and think senior officials should tamp it down. Some of Buttigieg’s former campaign staffers also question whether challenging Harris is feasible given how critical the Black vote is in any Democratic primary, and how Buttigieg struggled to attract those voters the last time around. But there is some existing infrastructure waiting in the wings.
The political action committee he formed in the aftermath of the presidential race, Win the Era, is mostly keeping quiet, but the website remains up and has been organizing occasional events including one on Nov. 15. Former campaign aides Maxwell Nunes and Michael Halle have been helping keep it afloat, according to filings and disbursement reports. Neither of them responded to messages.
As for the reports of an emerging rivalry with the vice president, Buttigieg said: “We work extremely well with the vice president’s team, and I’m proud to be part of the Biden-Harris team and this administration.”
The White House declined to comment.
Buttigieg is getting a taste of what life would be like selling a presidential agenda.
He was in Phoenix on Friday for a trio of events touting construction projects, including places that could benefit from the administration’s newly minted infrastructure funding law, and addressing concerns about the supply chain. Arizona Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego all joined him for at least two of the meetings, and there was a lot of mutual praise.
Sinema, who has occasionally given the White House and progressives fits, seemed delighted to appear with Buttigieg at a round table at Mesa Community College where he sat between the two senators. “Thanks for your leadership,” in getting the infrastructure bill signed, Buttigieg said.
It was his first day on the road as a prominent face of the president’s infrastructure package, a $550 billion legislative initiative he will help implement and sell to the public, with all the political implications that holds for the president.
“What excites me most is that we’re going to have a lot of groundbreakings and eventually a lot of ribbon cuttings,” he said of the year ahead.
While there is no election directly in sight, Buttigieg’s initial on-the-ground efforts to promote the infrastructure deal had some familiar elements of his past campaigns. There were lots of news interviews, meet-and-greets with local electeds, die-hard fans in “Pete” shirts carrying copies of his book, a protester with a homophobic sign (“Booty Gay Go Away”), and people having trouble pronouncing his name (“Butt-Edge-Edge” instead of “Boot-Edge-Edge,” as the emcee of one event kept pronouncing it).
There were also attempts at that folksy Midwestern humor that were part of his candidacy roughly two years ago. On the benefits of the infrastructure package, he told POLITICO “this is literally as concrete as it gets.” He noted how cold it was at the bill signing but said that the bipartisan package “warmed my heart.”
But, at least atmospherically, there are differences from the 2020 primary too. People now referred to him as “Secretary Mayor Pete,” “Mayor Secretary Pete,” “Secretary Pete,” “Mayor Pete,” or the familiar “Pete.” For the uninitiated there was also a new documentary on Buttigieg’s campaign that premiered on Amazon this month.
“I’m the second most famous mayor in my graduating class, and he’s not even mayor” anymore, laughed Gallego, who attended Harvard University as an undergrad with Buttigieg.
Buttigieg, who’s seen the documentary about his 2020 run, said it brought back a lot of memories but demurred when asked if he thought the movie captured who he is. “I don’t even know how to assess a question like that, right? Because I’m just too close to all of those experiences,” he said.
It was all an unusual scene for the usually mundane life of a Transportation secretary. But Buttigieg is not your typical Transportation secretary. He’s the first openly gay person to be Senate-confirmed and a new parent to two adopted kids who have become social media sensations, sometimes outpacing the president’s posts in terms of engagement.
He’s seemingly been at the center of political buzz ever since former President Barack Obama dubbed him one of the future stars of the Democratic Party in November 2016, which has also drawn scorn from older, more seasoned politicians who believe his rise would be impossible if he weren’t a white man with a Harvard degree.
The current round of presidential speculation comes at a particularly consequential moment for Buttigieg. The Democratic Party is scouring for the next generation of leaders, even more so amid the persistent questions about whether Biden will decide to run for re-election. His aides insist that running again is his “intention,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. But some Democrats see that language as equivocal.
At the same time, Buttigieg finds himself at the heart of the Biden administration’s top priorities and main liabilities, which will likely have significant effects on his political future. He oversees parts of the supply chain that have been snarled by the Covid-19 pandemic, contributing to inflation and threatening many sectors of the economy.
Or as Senator Kelly, who’s up for re-election in 2022, said Friday at a federal grant signing for a light rail project: “With all the work we dumped on your desk here, you’re gonna have the biggest job of any secretary of Transportation I think in decades, if not ever.”