WASHINGTON — A series of transportation calamities is tarnishing Pete Buttigieg’s political prospects, threatening to hamper his ability to use his high-profile Cabinet position as a springboard for a widely-expected second White House bid once President Joe Biden leaves office.
A Federal Aviation Administration meltdown earlier this week that grounded flights across the U.S. was the latest debacle to erupt within Buttigieg’s portfolio as Transportation secretary. It unfolded just weeks after the former small-town mayor faced tough questions about his handling of Southwest Airlines’ stranding of thousands of passengers nationwide during the holidays.
Buttigieg, 40, is one of the administration’s most public-facing officials, appearing frequently on cable television news programs and traveling across the country to promote Biden’s initiatives. He and Vice President Kamala Harris are widely considered to be the two likeliest White House officials to nurse their own future presidential aspirations.
But the transportation crises strike at the heart of the brand that Buttigieg, a former Rhodes Scholar and McKinsey consultant, has sought to cultivate since his failed 2020 campaign as a technocrat who could ably handle the reins of the federal government.
Republicans have used the aviation woes to attack Buttigieg’s managerial skills, with Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton tweeting that the secretary “couldn’t organize a one-car funeral” and South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace filing a bill that would require Buttigieg and his staff to only fly on commercial airlines until an investigation into the FAA snafu is completed.
GOP consultant Robert Cahaly, who received a text that his flight home was canceled while at a San Francisco 49ers game, said that it was the kind of frustrating experience that voters remember and could hurt Buttigieg in the long run.
“If the only time you see Pete Buttigieg is when all the planes are grounded and you’re standing in line, I don’t see how that helps him,” he said.
But supporters say the crises also given him a chance to show how he can handle them. The cable news show regular has made multiple appearances in recent days to explain what’s going on, earning high marks from Democratic strategists for being able to distill complex issues into smart sound bites and not shying away from tough questions on the conservative Fox News network.
Democratic consultant Ben Tribbett said that Buttigieg has handled that part of the job well.
“When’s the last time you saw a transportation secretary on any cable news show?” he said. “You don’t get on the national news because you rebuilt a multimillion-dollar bridge. Unfortunately, you only get on when there’s some sort of conflict.”
Biden, who once compared Buttigieg to his late son, Beau, said Wednesday that he had talked with the secretary about the FAA outage for 10 minutes by phone and asked him to “report directly to me” when the cause is uncovered. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden had confidence in his job and “respects the secretary and the work that he has been doing.”
White House chief of staff Ron Klain also tweeted his support of Buttigieg, saying he had “done an incredible job” amid a rash of challenges.
Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, who endorsed Buttigieg’s presidential bid in 2020, said that it was inevitable that he would “get some heat” when things go wrong in his current role, but said it will be a chance for him to prove his mettle. Eventually, he said, that will be good for his prospects as a future candidate, given that his previous post was as mayor of an Indiana town.
“It was always going to be a leap for Americans to say that the former mayor of South Bend was ready to be president, no matter how smart he was,” he said.
Buttigieg had already taken some steps to address problems with flights canceled during the summer holiday season. In August, Buttigieg sent a letter to nine major U.S. air carriers saying they should pay for meals and hotels for travelers facing delays.
The following month, the Department of Transportation unveiled an online dashboard showing what costs airlines will cover because of canceled flights.
Political strategist Emily Ryan, whose business works with Democrats and Republicans, said that for now consumers aren’t blaming Buttigieg because there is so much “pent-up frustration” with airlines, but his political reputation could take a hit if he’s seen as covering for them in some way.
“If he’s able to put any points on the board in terms of reform, that could be a benefit,” she said. “But if it starts to look like he’s covering for them – which I don’t see him doing – that would turn the tide against him.”