Mayor Pete, the Democratic candidate with the highest takes to votes ratio, was nominated by President-Elect Biden as Transportation Secretary, a move that took many by surprise. It had been assumed that the multilingual Buttigieg, who has proven himself as an effective communicator, might be given a role in foreign policy, perhaps as UN Ambassador, a position that Nikki Haley used as effective perch to build a bigger national profile. Instead, Buttigieg was handed a more senior domestic policy role, one that seemed to take many by surprise.
Given the large number of Pete haters out there, it is perhaps unsurprising that this nomination has attracted a lot of heat.
For many people, ironically including many of those who advocate most for representation for young and LGBTQ Americans, the nomination has them saying “no not like that!” Buttigieg has long been a lightning rod of a certain kind of criticism. Because of his lack of experience in a senior executive role, the presence of corporate efficiency gurus McKinsey on his resume, and in part the fluid manner of his speech, many are quick to doubt his competence in running such a large and critical agency.
This, I think, is not a fair criticism of his nomination. It’s true Buttigieg is a smooth talker, it’s also true that McKinsey often recommends cost-cutting measures that are unpopular with key stakeholders, it’s also true that he’s not an engineer or an urban planner or someone who has served on the House or Senate transportation committees or ran the Indiana Department of Transportation. To me, however, most of these are actually positives.
Buttigieg’s communication skills certainly rub his critics the wrong way, but there’s no denying he’s an effective speaker. His familiarity with foreign languages should help here too. There's no doubt that the US can learn much about public transit from other countries. In addition, it’s not like the Secretary is the one designing train stations or rail pathways. Others do that work, and he picks from the available options. The hard work isn’t picking among the options, it’s advancing the administration’s priorities in Congress and the media. That’s a job for a politician, not an engineer.
It’s also true that American infrastructure, especially public transit infrastructure, costs far too much. Italy and Spain are pumping out new transit networks at a brisk pace, while the US has built only a few mixed-traffic streetcars and a half subway line recently. Worthy, necessary projects like the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway extension languish because of the cost of delivery. The United States is never going to get the transit network it deserves as long as it takes piles of cash just to build a few miles of track.
That’s why it’s for the best that Buttigieg isn’t from the world of transportation and urban planning. While there are plenty of wonderful people who work for transit agencies and state DOTs, the prevailing culture is so heavily weighted towards wasteful projects, against multimodalism, and in favor of whole cities and towns where a car is necessary to travel less than half a mile. If the Biden administration is serious about moving on from America’s wasteful and inefficient status quo, why would they put someone steeped in that status quo in charge?
It’s certainly possible that Buttigieg will bomb as Transportation Secretary. It’s not an easy job, and many of his predecessors failed to accomplish their previously stated goals of deemphasizing highway expansion and supporting multimodalism. The impediments aren’t engineering or planning problems, they are political ones. If Buttigieg is truly the potential president he thinks he is, he’ll succeed here. If he’s not, he’ll fail. Either way, it won’t be because he didn’t get an MPP along the way.