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The Torturous Year Ahead for Secretary Pete Buttigieg — and Us

Pete Buttigieg at a meeting

As he passes out infrastructure checks, is he building a path toward running for president in 2024?

I had a good laugh to myself while watching out U.S Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on 60 Minutes over the weekend. At one point during his interview with Anderson Cooper, I joked to no one in particular, "Looks like the Transportation secretary is test driving a possible presidential run!"

During the high-profile interview on the heavily watched news show, the secretary was coy when Cooper asked him if he'd run against President Joe Biden.

"Where my head is at is how do we spend the better part of a trillion dollars in infrastructure funding accountable, on time, on task, and on budget. It literally doesn't leave any room for me to be thinking about politics," Buttigieg said, quite obviously, evasively.

Even Cooper wasn't buying Buttigieg's less than straightforward retort. "I kind of thought that was the answer," Cooper joked.

Buttigieg might be in the best position of any government official in Washington, sans Biden. He is the point person on the approximately $850 billion infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden late last year. As a result, he gets to travel around the country handing out big goody bags of money to fund jobs in communities that will go toward fixing aging infrastructure that includes roads, bridges, and tunnels.

Cooper suggested that because of this giveaway, Buttigieg might be a dead giveaway for a potential presidential run, since he is amassing a plethora of local contacts while he spreads money and goodwill.

When Cooper inquired about this advantageous scenario, The transportation secretary stalled with an answer.

"Like every job, there's a flashy side and then there's a workhorse side," the cagey Buttigieg explained. "Like any other job, you will succeed if you keep your head down and do what needs to be done, but I'll tell you, I love this job. There's nothing I'd rather be doing in public service right now."

Kudos to Pete for matching Cooper's keen observation with a keenly understated answer. What was the secretary supposed to say? "Oh, Anderson, you are exactly right. This is almost like legal bribery. I'm doling out these checks, glad-handing, and making sure I'm front and center for all the pictures so that people don't forget who brought them the largesse."

Many might say it's two years until the next presidential election and this speculation is too premature. But 2024 might be different because Biden will be 82 years old then. Not since Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984 at the age of 73 has a president's age and health been called into question. Reagan was re-\elected in a landslide. But pundits and party operatives seem to be quietly wondering if Biden might be too old.

As a result, there's an unusual amount of conjecture about who would be the standard-bearer if Biden decided not to run again. Personally, if I was Biden, I'd cash in my chips after one term. The clunky exit of Afghanistan, the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, the war in Ukraine, sky-high gas prices -- I mean, I'm 57 and I'd be ready to quit out of exhaustion. Biden will be 80 this year. How does he do it?

When Biden picked then-Senator Kamala Harris as vice presidentt, it was assumed that he was picking his heir apparent, but the reviews have been spotty about Harris. After only a year, many of her staffers were running for the exits, claiming a toxic work environment. Again, the same party operatives and pundits who are secretly assessing the aging Biden are also "meh" about Harris leading the party.

Last December, MSNBC ran a story saying that Democratic donors, strategists, and pundits are already eyeing Biden's potential 2024 successors if he declines to run for reelection. And already there's new conventional wisdom emerging: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's star is rising while Vice President Kamala Harris's star appears to be fading.

So if Harris peters out and Biden opts out for his Rehoboth Beach, Del., house on the Atlantic Coast, it looks, as of now, that Buttigieg is a logical option. He did win the most delegates the Iowa caucus, after all, becoming the first gay presidential candidate to win a primary or caucus.

After he made us so proud by winning, I wrote about his success, "There have been some momentous political achievements in our community by individuals who risked it all, ran bravely for office, and won. But nothing like we've just witnessed."

It's hard to see Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren run again. Sanders will be 83, and Warren 75. CNN ran a list of possible contenders if Biden doesn't run. You can check out the list here, but the only name, at least to me, that pops out is Buttigieg. Thus, the reason that he's keeping his cards close to his vest.

Perhaps the most famous equivocation about running for president was by then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1992. When he decided not to run, The New York Times said, "After 10 weeks of tortuous public deliberation that seemed to take him to the brink of candidacy, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo stepped back today and announced that he would not run for President in 1992."

Can we expect a similarly tortuous public mulling of to run or not to run from Buttigieg? Will it be the running question for Secretary Pete for at least the next year? Most likely yes, because there are so many potential roadblocks, decisions, and consequences that may pop up on his potential infrastructure road to the White House.

Or could it be smooth sailing? The MSNBC piece said, "Buttigieg has got a simpler gig that provides a smoother runway for a presidential run."

And that runway might be upgraded because it's flush with his infrastructure cash. Moreover, Buttigieg is one of the administration's most prominent spokespeople. He seems to be the go-to person for Fox News, probably because he can equivocate expertly on all the "gotcha" questions Fox's anchors throw at him.

Clearly, we're not going to get an answer from Buttigieg anytime soon; however, in the interim, let's enjoy all the fuss, speculation, predictions, and fawning over a gay front-running presidential candidate. And, if we're lucky, perhaps all of his "test driving" will pay off someday -- maybe 2024 -- when he rides to his inauguration in the presidential limousine.

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.