He was an early endorser, a capable debate prep partner, and an enthusiastic hype-man for President-elect Joe Biden both on television and on the campaign trail. Now, those close to Pete Buttigieg are hoping that he has proved that he’s earned a high-profile spot in Biden’s administration—one that would have once seemed an unthinkable next step for the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana: ambassador to the United Nations.
“He wants to build out his foreign policy credentials and land a spot that keeps him in the news but out of domestic political fights,” said one person familiar with Buttigieg’s thinking. “The UN does that, and gives him the option to build out his political possibilities.”
When it comes to entertaining Cabinet positions in a potential administration, Biden is famously superstitious about not putting the cart before the horse (two failed presidential campaigns will teach you that lesson in hubris), and those close to the transition told The Daily Beast the president-elect is weeks away from making any kind of final selections for Cabinet-level appointments. More importantly, the team of longtime allies and supporters that has surrounded Biden for decades generally takes a skeptical view of those whom they view to be jockeying for positions too prematurely—or too publicly.
Almost immediately after the election was finally called in Biden’s favor on Saturday afternoon, the steady trickle of would-be appointees reaching out to influential figures in the president-elect’s orbit became a deluge.
“The jockeying for appointments is in hyperdrive now,” one such person told The Daily Beast the morning after the race was called.
Those familiar with the internal reception to more overt job-seeking pointed to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whose allies made her aspirations to helm the Treasury Department clear even before the election took place, as well as Stacey Abrams’ very public pursuit of the vice presidential nomination. Both were seen by some of those close to Biden as distracting from the work of getting the campaign across the finish line. Close union allies of Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI), a former union organizer, have already begun consolidating behind his potential nomination to run the Department of Labor, which those close to the transition say he has been aggressively pursuing.
“He’s not doing that,” said one insider, referring to those making their appointment dreams explicitly known. “Pete’s not actively campaigning for himself for anything. So that’s a marked difference there between some of the other people who are actively jockeying. Whatever his desires or intentions are, he is not broadcasting it very widely.”
Buttigieg, accordingly, has steadfastly demurred on any possible position in the new administration, even as speculation about any number of roles and candidates has bloomed after Biden’s victory. Veterans Affairs secretary and director of the Office of Management and Budget have both been floated as potential landing pads, as well—although the former is often seen as a white elephant for those with any hope of a political future, and those close to Buttigieg feel that it’s unlikely that he would accept what is effectively a staff position at OMB. The highly visible diplomatic posting, then, is seen as the most logical option—albeit one that Buttigieg has not requested specifically.
“They’re not pro people who’ve run shadow campaigns, and who’ve tried to stick themselves out there,” another Democratic aide told The Daily Beast.
Perhaps sensing that chilliness, Buttigieg has publicly focused on his work on supporting the Biden campaign from the moment he dropped out, serving as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ sparring partner ahead of her debate with Vice President Mike Pence, and making frequent appearances as a campaign surrogate, as well as on local and national television in the final weeks of the campaign—including taking Biden’s case to potentially hostile audiences.
“You know, I was focused on ensuring that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were elected,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Saturday night, after the anchor asked him whether he’d had any conversations about a position in a Biden Cabinet.
“There will be plenty of time for that to come up,” Buttigieg continued. “The answer now is the answer I’ve given throughout, which is [that] I am just so excited about supporting this administration, and that much I’m certain of.”
A spokesperson for Buttigieg declined to discuss any potential roles in the next administration on the record. The Biden transition team declined to comment on any potential appointments, which they emphasized are still speculative regardless of the position.
Buttigieg’s face-forward surrogacy strategy—cribbing from his successful flood-the-zone media strategy during the Democratic primary campaign—has the simultaneous benefit of keeping the former mayor a presence on the trail and of reminding the Biden team that he’s been a reliable team player.
“Biden has committed to building out the Democratic bench and making his cabinet as diverse as possible,” a Democratic aide told The Daily Beast. “Pete helps achieve both of those goals and has already proven himself an effective spokesperson. While others were running shadow campaigns, Pete’s focus was on mobilizing voters and doing what he could to expand the Democratic brand to new audiences. That type of talent, loyalty and focus is something you want in a new administration.”
The history-making aspect of such a nomination—the first openly gay Cabinet official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate—is another selling point for Biden, who has publicly pledged to build an administration that reflects the diversity of the country he is now set to lead.
“Men, women, gay, straight, center, across the board, Black, white, Asian—it really matters that it looks like the country, because everyone brings a slightly different perspective,” Biden said of a potential Cabinet in April.
“It does help Biden make history by appointing the first real openly LGBT Cabinet member,” a source close to Biden, who emphasized that they are personally leery of Buttigieg’s ambassadorial ambitions, told The Daily Beast. (The “real” line was in reference to Ric Grenell, who served as acting director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump for three months, although he was never formally nominated, much less confirmed by the Senate. He was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, however.)
“It is essential an LGBTQ voice is at the table,” said Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the nation’s largest PAC that supports LGBTQ candidates for public office, which endorsed Buttigieg’s campaign in June 2019. “An LGBTQ cabinet appointment will ensure our community is part of decision-making at the highest levels and will also be a lasting piece of Joe Biden’s legacy.”
But Buttigieg has limitations as a nominee that some close to Biden feel are so obvious that it irks them to point it out—he has few traditional foreign policy qualifications, short of his service as a U.S Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan and his much-documented facility with languages.
Biden, meanwhile, spent 36 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one-third of that time serving as either chairman or ranking member. While issues of foreign policy and national security were largely sidelined by domestic concerns on the campaign trail—one former Buttigieg staffer noted that in the 10 debates the ex-mayor participated in, foreign policy was nearly never a primary focus—Biden is expected to take a serious view of rebuilding America’s alliances overseas. Having surrounded himself with subject-matter experts on foreign policy for decades, and aware from the Obama years that an all-star Cabinet isn’t always the most effective, Biden may be less tempted to stack his team with bold-faced names.
But diplomats told The Daily Beast that while Buttigieg’s lack of conventional foreign policy credentials isn’t a selling point, it’s far from an insurmountable barrier to performing the job—which relies less on statecraft than one might think.
“We have very rarely sent Ph.Ds in international affairs to the UN as our chief representative,” said one former ambassador, who noted that Nikki Haley was confirmed by a Senate vote of 96-4 despite possessing little in the way of foreign-policy bona fides. “When you’re dealing with the United Nations, I think the prime asset one carries with one isn’t necessarily 30 years of studying the intricacies of Metternich’s approach to diplomacy, or the Treaty of Ghent—the primary asset you bring to the table, or the best asset you could bring to the table, is an ability to listen to people who are different, understand their positions, and then work with them to get beyond positions and find common ground on interests.”
“If you’ve lived your life or a good bit of your life as an LGBT person, you have learned how to negotiate with a world that is completely different from yourself, and you’ve learned how to mediate in ways that create acceptable outcomes,” said the former ambassador, who is openly gay. “So, I think for the UN, this would be a strength.”
Part of the calculation is the likely political reality of a Republican-held Senate guarding the gates to Biden’s cabinet. Confirmation is the name of the game as long as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell runs the show, and as a presidential candidate effectively “vetted” by the press during his campaign, Buttigieg at least poses a low risk of unpleasant surprises during a confirmation hearing. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has stated that Biden “deserves” a Cabinet—but has forewarned that “there may be some people that I just can’t vote for because I think they’re unqualified or too extreme.”
“Given the Republican Senate, he believes Biden’s team has to consider qualifications while looking at who can more easily pass the Senate,” the person familiar with Buttigieg’s thinking told The Daily Beast. “Pete believes it’s easier for Republicans to support him, whilst hoping that Biden team remembers how quickly Pete endorsed the vice president, worked hard for him, helped Kamala prep for VP debate, etc., so he has a bunch of leverage.”
But it takes a lot of gumption—or, detractors imply, presumption—to run for president when you’re the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city, and some Republicans have already made it clear that they don’t intend to help pad the résumé of any Democratic rising stars who might seek higher office down the road.
“Mitch McConnell will force Joe Biden to negotiate every single cabinet secretary, every single district court judge, every single U.S. attorney with him,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told Politico earlier this month. “My guess is we’ll have a constitutional crisis pretty immediately.”