Despite many of the unnecessary, counterproductive, pointless, harmful, and artificial impediments to a smooth transition between administrations that have been created, Joe Biden has assembled his slate of Cabinet nominees. As is the norm for incoming administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, many of Biden’s choices are being criticized. For whatever reason, it is more common for Democratic presidents to receive criticism from within their own party. That intra-party disapproval often seems to center around at least as much who a nominee is not, as who they are. Supporters of a particular candidate in the presidential primaries seem to take great offense when the eventual victor from their party does not choose their preferred former candidate for a Cabinet position.
That has not stopped Biden from tapping into the pool of former rivals. The highest profile example is, of course, his selection of Kamala Harris to be his running mate and, because of their victory in the November elections (which, despite what is being said in some circles, is not in doubt), who will now serve as vice president.
It is possible though that, in a functional sense, Biden’s appointment of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to head the Department of Transportation could be almost as consequential as Harris getting the vice presidential nod. As noted in this space before, a national effort to make infrastructure improvements is something that has received bipartisan support. If there is not a duplicitous about-face on the issue by some members of the House and Senate in the coming weeks, it is something that should be able to get done. When it does, many of the resulting programs and projects will be undertaken by, or administered through, the Transportation Department.
Buttigieg was my preferred candidate for the Democratic nomination. He is clearly intelligent. He speaks well. His temperament seems well suited to a job of being president, as he appears to be capable of remaining calm in challenging circumstances and level-headed under pressure. He projects a sense of compassion and empathy. He gives the impression that he is a fundamentally fair and decent person. Those traits are necessary for effective public service. His military experience no doubt helped him develop and hone many of them.
However, there is one aspect of his background and experience that is coming back to the forefront and that will play an outsized role in how he performs as the secretary of Transportation. That is his time in local government. I am partial to local officials, particularly mayors, because they operate where the action is. There are fewer layers of abstraction and they tend to deal with constituents more directly than presidents, members of Congress, governors, and even state legislators. Maybe that is not true of mayors of enormous cities, but South Bend, Indiana, is not New York City or Los Angeles. Some have tried to use the relative size of that community against Buttigieg, saying it does not qualify him to hold the position to which he is being appointed. On the contrary, my experience with mayors, city councilors, city managers, and other local government officials from around the country lead me to believe that he may be uniquely qualified for the position.
If there is to be large infrastructure investments made in this country over the next few years, the practical sensibilities of a former local government official will be extremely useful and beneficial to the effort. The selection of Pete Buttigieg to head the department that would oversee and direct a large portion of it was a terrific, and possibly underestimated, choice by Joe Biden.
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University, and former mayor of Tahlequah.