When Pete Buttigieg became Transportation secretary at the start of the Biden administration, some Democrats said it would be a perfect platform for his political prospects if not in 2024, then 2028.
Buttigieg could crisscross the country, appearing before crowds in key states while elevating his name recognition, resume and overall brand.
Instead, the job of Transportation secretary has been a set of compounding problems for Buttigieg, 41, who has been seen as one of the Democratic Party’s brightest stars.
Buttigieg has been blasted for taking too long to travel to East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a train derailment that has created serious environmental and health concerns for the community.
In January, he bore the brunt of criticism over a disastrous holiday travel season for Southwest Airlines, which resulted in thousands of people being stranded. And that same month, he was criticized over problems with the FAA, which had to ground flights for two hours for the first time in more than 20 years.
“I don’t think his story was supposed to go this way,” said one Democratic strategist. “I think he took the job thinking there wouldn’t be a lot of risk surrounding the role. I don’t think he understood how political this job would be and how he’d be a punching bag.”
The latest criticism came on Thursday from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) who said Buttigieg is “not ready for the responsibilities he has.”
“He was a fine mayor from what I understand, but the position he’s got really would be better served by a person who’s managed a large enterprise, a state, or something of the scale he’s now dealing with,” Romney told the HuffPost when he was asked about Buttigieg’s job performance.
In the past, Transportation secretaries weren’t always magnets for political criticism. But Buttigieg’s situation is unique.
He’s among the most high-profile figures in the Biden administration, seen as second to Vice President Kamala Harris in terms of Democratic presidential politics as a potential successor to Biden.
He’s also leading a department that is now solidly in the news given the times. COVID-era issues with the supply chain, travel and inflation have put various transportation issues in Buttigieg’s portfolio in the public view.
GOP opponents have suggested that Buttigieg got his job because of his high political profile and that he didn’t deserve it.
“Pete Buttigieg couldn’t organize a one-car funeral,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote on Twitter at the time. “He was never remotely qualified for this role.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) also sought to cast blame on Buttigieg.
“… I am not surprised that he doesn’t know anything because that’s consistent with how he’s handled any kind of question or issue that we’ve had in our transportation sector since he became secretary,” Biggs said on Fox and Friends, the morning show on Fox News.
Republicans have hit Buttigieg on personal terms as well, criticizing him for taking family leave in 2021 to care for his newborn twins alongside his husband.
Earlier this week, the Transportation Department’s internal watchdog said it would also be auditing Buttigieg’s use of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) jets. The audit came after a request from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who pointed to a FOX News Digital report showing the secretary had flown at least 18 times on the FAA planes.
The attacks on Buttigieg haven’t just come from conservatives.
Progressives, who had taken a dim view of Buttigieg during the 2020 primary and were critical of his background as a McKinsey consultant when he was nominated for the post, have also suggested he and his department are too close to powerful transportation interests.
In a speech last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) criticized Buttigieg for protecting corporate airline monopolies.
“Secretary Buttigieg has the power to stop anti-competitive airline mergers and he should use that power right now,” Warren said.
Additionally, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee tore into Buttigieg for “being silent for 10 days” following the Ohio train derailment.
The White House has largely come to Buttigieg’s defense in the face of such attacks. Last week, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the latest round of attacks “pure politics.”
“There’s been a lot of bad faith attacks on Secretary Buttigieg,” Jean-Pierre said.
She pointed to Elaine Chao, who served as Transportation secretary to former President Donald Trump. “When there was these types of chemical spills, nobody was calling for her to be fired,” Jean-Pierre said.
Democrats say the criticism aimed at Buttigieg is to be expected because of his rising-star power on the political stage.
“It’s not complicated. He is highly competent and a good communicator, and they want to tear him down because they are scared of him,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and donor.
Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau agreed, saying Buttigieg has become the ultimate foil for Republicans because of his stature within the party but also because he’s become a face for the administration’s perceived failures.
“Republicans have realized it’s hard to go after President Biden directly, so it makes sense to try and bring down the people around him,” Mollineau said. “Given Secretary Buttigieg’s name recognition, I’m not surprised they’ve been attacking him.”
And while Democrats broadly acknowledge the criticism has taken a toll on Buttigieg’s political prospects, Mollineau said there are also opportunities for him to course correct.
“It hasn’t been a great beginning of the year for Secretary Buttigieg, but I also know House Republicans can’t help but overreach,” he said. “I think the secretary regains the upper hand over time by continuing to be thoughtful and analytical in his approach while letting the firebrands show their ultra partisanship.”