BERLIN, N.H.— Standing on a bridge with the picturesque Androscoggin River churning behind him, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg hoisted an oversized novelty check made out to the “City of Berlin” for $19,534,391. The memo line read: “Biden-Harris Administration RAISE Grant.”
It’s been nearly nine months since a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill was signed into law by President Joe Biden. But that success in a policy area that Americans can literally see every day in their own communities hasn’t penetrated the electorate — a July poll showed that just 24 percent of voters even know that the long-promised bill to fix roads and bridges and improve broadband is actually now law.
Which is a big reason that Buttigieg was standing on that bridge in New Hampshire, flanked by Democratic incumbents Rep. Annie Kuster and Sen. Maggie Hassan, as part of a six-state swing to personally award nearly $100 million in grants using the traditional prop of placards that look like large checks.
“We’re here with a little bit of wind at our back right now,” Buttigieg told those gathered, including local business owners and party grandees, as he also mentioned the administration’s other recent successes, including the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science law, and veterans’ burn pit care legislation.
Buttigieg’s blitz to sell one of Biden’s signature domestic victories comes just 10 weeks before the midterm election. In a stroke of fortuitous timing, Buttigieg’s department doled out some $2.2 billion last week alone to 166 transportation projects.
The oversized checks and new signage that should appear on 5,300 construction projects over the next 30 days or so will be a visible sign to Americans that the administration is making progress on its agenda despite the challenges of working with a closely divided Congress, he said.
“The point is not to chase after the percentage of people who know that a certain piece of legislation moved in a certain way,” Buttigieg said in an interview inside Berlin’s City Hall, not far from where he once had a campaign office in this North Country town. “The important thing is for people to know that this administration, with support from leaders in Congress who’ve worked together to get this done, is now delivering for that and getting those numbers to leap off the page, turning it into real tangible benefits. That’s a story that I think we do need to do more work to tell, because it doesn’t tell itself.”
Buttigieg, 40, is the youngest Cabinet member and arguably the best-known as a result of his own presidential campaign in 2020. His party’s success in November—and his own future ambitions for higher office—depend, in part, on him selling the sweeping infrastructure package.
The administration’s infrastructure coordinator, Mitch Landrieu, acknowledged that the administration’s push to sell their progress now isn’t unconnected to the upcoming midterms.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, and unless and until they see it, they don’t really know it,” Landrieu said in an interview. The photo ops “will remind them that the president made promises, and the president delivered on those promises in a way that other presidents have not been able to do.”
“As we get closer to the elections, and people are starting to put paid media on TV, they’ll start seeing these pictures,” Landrieu, who visited Pennsylvania on his own tour last week, said.
Buttigieg’s infrastructure sales pitch is both enhanced and hampered by his own political celebrity, particularly in New Hampshire — an early voting state where he finished second behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, and where he recently essentially tied Biden in a wildly hypothetical poll of a 2024 contested primary.
“If abortion is blocking out the sun in the national discourse on politics, underneath of that voters are still concerned about infrastructure and inflation and the work that we’re doing around the country, both delivering these projects to make life better for people, and also to explain the work of the administration to fixing supply chains,” said Martha McKenna, a national progressive ad maker who worked on Buttigieg’s two mayoral runs. “That’s a really powerful combination down the stretch here.”
Buttigieg is traveling a lot these days, in both his personal and official capacities. Far from D.C., when he travels for political reasons, Buttigieg has been spending more time making a broader sales pitch for Democrats up and down the ballot, boosting Democrats on the campaign trail in states across the country. Over just one late August weekend, he spent nearly four hours huddling with Indiana Democrats at a resort in southern Indiana, his home state, before jetting to California’s Napa Valley to join Nancy Pelosi for her annual donor confab. And in September, he will return to Manchester to headline the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner.
He is “living like a member of Congress,” he said, shuttling around the country, to D.C. and back to his new home in Traverse City, Michigan, where he lives with his husband and their twins near his in-laws.
Buttigieg is one of only two of Biden’s former primary rivals to gain a perch in the Cabinet (Vice President Kamala Harris is the other), and that rarified status often invites speculation about his future presidential ambitions. When at official events, Buttigieg is assiduously careful about violating the Hatch Act, the 1939 law that forbids public officials from using their official jobs to campaign for themselves or others.
This can cause awkward moments: At a meet-and-greet with citizens inside Berlin’s City Hall, 68-year-old Keith Dempster, who supported Buttigieg in the 2020 primary, was asked by Buttigieg aides to cover up his blue and white “PETE” campaign t-shirt because the gathering was part of Buttigieg’s official duties, not a political event. About the same time he was shaking hands inside Berlin’s city hall, the Republican National Committee accused Buttigieg, without evidence, of “using taxpayer dollars to campaign for president in New Hampshire.” It was the kind of treatment that not every Cabinet member solicits.
Indeed, at campaign events, Buttigieg is fastidious. When he met with Hoosier Democrats at French Lick Resort in August as a special guest of his former campaign manager-turned-Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg fended off an endorsement request from Secretary of State candidate Destiny Wells, who is seeking the backing of the Buttigieg-founded Win the Era political action committee. Buttigieg told her he had stepped away from coordinating with his own PAC. Later that evening, Buttigieg was introduced by Rep. Andre Carson of Indianapolis, who called him “the future of American politics.” Buttigieg told the room that he was governed by the Hatch Act, and so had to be careful about what he said about his official duties. But then Buttigieg, standing on the chair in the lobby of the resort, gave a version of what will likely be his stump speech should he be dispatched on the campaign trail this fall.
“They’re going to keep focusing on which books to ban,” Buttigieg told several dozen Democrats, “and we’re going to keep focusing on what bridges to build.”
Buttigieg’s infrastructure tour included stops in states including Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and Minnesota. But when asked whether those states were chosen for political reasons, he mentioned the one state on the six-state tour that isn’t generally considered a battleground.
“Look, we didn’t go to Oklahoma because of politics,” Buttigieg said of a stop in Tulsa to promote a $10 million grant for a pedestrian bridge. “We went there because there was a great story and that’s true of each of the sites that we visited. We’re going to places that demonstrate the range of things you can do with good transportation dollars.”
Buttigieg declined to talk about his plans to return to New Hampshire next month when it will be harder for him to elide political questions.
“Right now, because I’m here in my day job, I can’t talk politics or campaigns,” Buttigieg said. “But what I’ll say is we believe good policy is good politics. I think that’s going to show in the things that we’re talking about here on the official side. And then we got some work to do over on the political side of the house to do a different kind of storytelling, but you’ll certainly see us I think very active in that regard, too.”