Until fairly recently, Pete Buttigieg had a relatively neat record as Secretary of Transportation. He handled infrastructure for an infrastructure-loving administration. He talked up electric vehicles. He made the Sunday show rounds—continuing to build his brand as a golden boy for Democrats that many expect to run for higher office.
Then came planes, trains, and a balloon in the sky. And it all got a bit more complicated.
Thousands were stranded over the holidays due to a Southwest Airlines meltdown that prompted cancellations across the county. Multiple train derailments made news, including one this month in East Palestine, Ohio, that released hazardous chemicals into the community. Many residents remain afraid for their health.
After a spy balloon from China made headlines, a number of other objects started floating through the sky, forcing the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates under the Transportation Department, to navigate tricky airspace. A system outage at the FAA last month also halted planes in the first nationwide ground stop since Sept. 11, 2001.
Suddenly a member of Joe Biden’s cabinet who’d been handling a relatively bipartisan agenda of fixing America’s infrastructure and supply chain quickly morphed into a point person for disaster.
Buttigieg’s Republican foes—and even some Democrats—are seizing the moment.
“It makes you wonder what that guy’s got to do to get fired. The last three years have been an absolute mess at the Department of Transportation. We’ve seen crisis after crisis,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told The Daily Beast. “Now, I understand that the secretary is politically ambitious. And he’d like to move to government housing in Washington, right off the street. But he does have a job to do.”
“It’s important that no one gets a sense that he or others are trying to hide when negative, bad events happen,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-IN).
“I don’t think very much of him because he hasn’t said much. He hasn’t done much in the face of not just this train or derailment, but in the face of a lot of others too,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH).
The Transportation Department is adamant their team was quick to respond to the derailment. “DOT staff were on the ground hours after the derailment to support the [National Transportation Safety Board] investigation. It’s no surprise to see some playing politics with every crisis, even something as serious as the impacts of a global pandemic on our transportation systems or a train derailment,” said Department of Transportation spokesperson Kerry Arndt.
Young, Cruz, and Vance are all members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which has been looking into these recent transportation-centric meltdowns. At a hearing Wednesday, the panel grilled the Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator Billy Nolen over the January system outage.
But there was another name being thrown around; some Republicans wanted Buttigieg there instead.
“I’m disappointed by the absence of a Senate-confirmed witness like Sec. Buttigieg, who ultimately oversees the agency responsible for the NOTAM failure,” Cruz said in committee Wednesday, referencing the FAA system that went out in January.
Democrats on the panel didn’t feel so adamant on Buttigieg attending.
“I’d rather have [Buttigieg] running the department than dodging bullets from all of us—rhetorical bullets,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).
There are some obvious political reasons Buttigieg’s critics would fire those “rhetorical bullets,” as Schatz and the secretary’s defenders would suggest.
Buttigieg was a breakout star in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, giving senior Democrats like Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) runs for their money, despite the fact that Buttigieg was only a mayor from the small city of South Bend, Indiana. As it eventually became clear he had no real path to victory, Buttigieg dropped out and quickly threw his weight behind Biden.
When Buttigieg was appointed to head the Department of Transportation, some questioned whether it was a cushy reward for the former mayor’s allegiance.
But behind the scenes, there are complex, difficult issues handled by DOT. The department handles issues with the supply chain, 5G networks, and more. Infrastructure merely became the bulk of Buttigieg’s brand as secretary on account of Biden promoting it so heavily via policy and messaging.
In tandem, infrastructure became an opportunity for Buttigieg to continue building his political prowess off a bipartisan subject. That sort of work does lend itself to bids for higher office. When running for president, Buttigieg faced pushback due to his lack of political experience.
“He’s doing a hard job, well,” said Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT), another member on the transportation panel.
But this winter brought a rare culmination of high-profile transportation-centric events at once. It shifted the subject matter Buttigieg is mostly closely associated with, for now. He spent December and early January on air talking about Southwest. He was grilled on the spy balloon on CNN, too, though some of the subject matter is out of DOT’s purview.
Schatz was quick to point out the political motivations of battering Buttigieg.
“I don’t mean to be dismissive of this, but accidents do happen in transportation… I get that because the secretary is more well known than your average transportation secretary, that Republicans have decided to try to rough him up. But they’re not doing a very effective job of it,” said Schatz.
Buttigieg’s rough few months have also prompted some Democratic lawmakers to issue cordial but stern remarks to the secretary calling for action. “We need Congressional inquiry and direct action from [Pete Buttigieg] to address this tragedy,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) wrote in a tweet on the Ohio train derailment.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who also competed with Buttigieg in the 2020 presidential primary, also took a swing at him Wednesday for not being aggressive enough against monopolistic airline mergers.
Sanders himself seemed more defensive of the secretary. According to The Independent, the Vermont senator swatted away any insistence of Buttigieg sharing blame for the derailment, stating, “Was he driving the train?”
Questions about Buttigieg’s political future recently resurfaced after Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) announced she will not run for another term in 2024. Last year, Buttigieg moved to Michigan. But the secretary quickly shot down the idea of a Senate run, stating he would stay in the administration instead.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are still demanding answers over recent transportation mishaps. Vance and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) sent a letter to Buttigieg Wednesday requesting more information on the conditions of the derailment.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Department is playing defense, including in a series of somewhat unusual tweets.
The department’s Twitter page has been actively replying to posts—including from personal accounts of everyday citizens, some with less than 200 followers—that criticize DOT and Buttigieg.
Arndt, DOT’s spokesperson, suggested Buttigieg remains undeterred by the recent bouts of criticism and “will continue to focus on getting results.”
“[W]hether that’s the successful resolution of a backlog of ships at our ports, ordering the toughest ever financial penalties for airlines over refund violations, securing new requirements for airlines to cover expenses for stranded passengers, assisting the [National Transportation Safety Board] investigation on the ground in East Palestine, and of course overseeing historic investments to improve our nation’s infrastructure,” she added.