Despite the fact that we’re just a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, Democratic donors, strategists and pundits are already eyeing his potential 2024 successors if he declines to run for re-election. And already there’s a new conventional wisdom emerging: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s star is rising while Vice President Kamala Harris’ star appears to be crashing.
The invisible primary — the process by which party elites try to pick a candidate well before any votes are cast or voters even form opinions on candidates — is often ugly business, and it’s already underway.
Buttigieg has got a simpler gig that provides a smoother runway for a presidential run.
It’s far too early to know if current trends will hold over time, and some of the reasons some bundlers are gravitating toward Buttigieg and nervous about Harris are tied to shallow and often indefensible hunches about so-called electability. But it’s worth pointing out that there is one good reason Buttigieg is more well positioned than Harris to take the reins from the man who appointed him: He’s got a simpler gig that provides a smoother runway for a presidential run.
Transportation secretary is generally one of the less glamorous positions in the president’s Cabinet. But in the Biden administration, there’s real opportunity for star power.
That’s because it’s at the heart of Biden’s legislative agenda: Buttigieg is in charge of implementing and championing many of the projects to be enacted under the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed in November, a huge piece of legislation that has given him unprecedented authority as head of the Department of Transportation. The job is a serious and complex one: It involves overseeing an agency with over 50,000 employees, working with $100 billion in spending and bringing together a wide variety of stakeholders who often have conflicting interests on projects like highways and rail lines and the rebuilding of cityscapes to make them greener and safer.
It’s a job that isn’t particularly vulnerable to controversy. Crucially, infrastructure is one of those extraordinarily rare realms of policy in America that hasn’t become poisoned by polarization (yet). Infrastructure still codes as relatively apolitical, and the prospect of dropping cash on roads and bridges and trains still garners remarkable bipartisan support — the infrastructure bill received the votes of nearly 20 Republican senators when it passed. Buttigieg gets to do ribbon-cutting and tour the Sunday morning talk shows while discussing tangible accomplishments — all while avoiding the kind of pushback that tends to accompany most major policy breakthroughs in our era.
Buttigieg is also using his position to tout anti-racist bona fides by pointing out how doing things like rerouting highways that were designed to help segregate cities is good for racial equality — perhaps an asset for a politician who struggled enormously with Black voters during his presidential candidacy.
Harris’ work as vice president is in some ways the precise opposite of Buttigieg’s. When Biden assigned Harris a sprawling, high-stakes policy portfolio, it was seen as a sign of esteem and an attempt to bring her into the fold on the biggest issues of the day. Harris was tasked with a number of hard jobs, including working on immigration policy, police reform and voting rights. But as my colleague Hayes Brown wrote in June, the complicated and thorny nature of these policy spaces have often put Harris in an awkward spot.
For example, her actions and rhetoric on immigration have elicited criticism from both her right and her left, with Republicans arguing she’s been inattentive to border enforcement and more progressive Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., arguing she has sounded cruel and conservative when discouraging migrants from coming to the U.S.
And issues like voting rights and criminal justice reform don't provide are not policy spaces where there are obvious prospects of big and simple wins because Republicans have stonewalled major efforts to pass bills on them in Congress.
Moreover, to the extent that Harris wants to champion her work in these spaces, the fact that they’re hot-button issues makes her acutely vulnerable to lines of attack used to mobilize Republicans. There is no doubt that 2024 hopefuls in the GOP would eagerly weaponize Harris’ status as one of the administration’s top figures on immigration to falsely caricature her as an open borders enthusiast to energize a party base that gets worked up over immigration. And Republicans are always keen on painting any Democrat who attempts to reform the police, no matter how modestly, as a proponent of police abolition.
In other words, while Buttigieg’s job position aligns neatly with his promise to be a politician who can transcend divisiveness in Washington, Harris’ job aligns neatly with the narrative of many of her critics within the party who fear she will be a polarizing candidate.
There is no guarantee that either politician will continue on the same trajectory. Buttigieg, for example, could take heat over supply chain issues; Harris could play a critical role in helping whip up support for a major bill that passes in the future and run on that. And while Buttigieg's job is simpler to sell, Harris can argue persuasively that she has a much better sense of what it takes to handle business in the Oval Office. But for now, it appears that Buttigieg is a beneficiary of taking a less conventionally flashy gig, while Harris might pay a price for it.