As president-elect, Joe Biden is steadily assembling his Cabinet, and putting forward nominees for top positions. One of those positions includes the head of the Department of Transportation. For that role, you'd imagine Biden would want someone who has experience working within transportation. So that's exactly why Biden will reportedly nominate ... Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary? We're just as confused as you are.
During the Democratic primary, Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, somehow made himself a serious contender to be the next president of the United States. But since he dropped out of the primary, Buttigieg quickly endorsed Biden and became one of his top surrogates in the waning days of the election. Now it seems that loyalty will be rewarded with a Cabinet post. While nothing is official yet, three people familiar with the matter told Politico that Biden will nominate Buttigieg for transportation secretary. Reuters also reported the news, citing four people with knowledge of the situation.
Buttigieg's reported ascension does fit with Biden's pledge to name a diverse team — Buttigieg would be the first openly gay Cabinet secretary if he is confirmed — but it's unclear what makes him the best choice to run the DOT specifically. Per the government's own description, the DOT oversees federal transportation projects and sets safety regulations for all major modes of transportation. Politico reported that if he's confirmed, Buttigieg will be responsible for 55,000 employees and an $87 billion budget. He'll also oversee the country's airspace and sprawling highway system.
But Buttigieg's managerial résumé is rather sparse — and he doesn't have much of a transportation résumé at all. Look at South Bend. The city of just over 100,000 isn't known for its public transportation; in 2018, the South Bend Tribune reported that the South Bend Public Transportation Corporation, which runs the city's bus network, was the only one of seven comparably-sized systems in Indiana that saw ridership decline for four consecutive years, from 2013 to 2016. As for the South Bend International Airport, it's governed by the St. Joseph County Airport Authority, not the mayor's office.
Buttigieg was reportedly also under consideration for ambassador to China, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and commerce secretary. He was rumored to favor a Cabinet position due to its prestige (even though the ambassador to China and OMB director arguably have more power than many Cabinet positions), so maybe his reported appointment to transportation secretary is a welcome consolation prize. Longtime transportation reporter Aaron Gordon wrote for Vice that even though he has no obvious qualifications, Buttigieg's appointment as Transportation secretary may not even really matter in the long run. That's because, Gordon argues, the big things that most people care about or are affected by — like how much funding the DOT gets — are decided by Congress, and other bureaucrats tend to manage day-to-day functioning.
Still, Politico reported that two Black community leaders from South Bend, who have previously criticized Buttigieg's record, spoke up once again in response to reports that he was under consideration. Council member Henry Davis Jr. told the outlet that Buttigieg has done "a really bad job for this community and my district in particular. Bus lines have been shut down and cut off in one of the poorest census tracts in this country.”
Local Black Lives Matter leader Jordan Giger added: “He has no history of working with Black-owned businesses. Hurting Black communities is not worth the price of doing a political favor for Pete Buttigieg because he endorsed [Biden’s] campaign in the primary."