Home Moral guidelines Pete Buttigieg’s Impossible Job | The Economist

Pete Buttigieg’s Impossible Job | The Economist


THIS WEEKS The signing of a bipartisan trillion dollar infrastructure bill provided insight into the policy Joe Biden has vowed to restore. Leaders from both parties gathered on the South Lawn of the White House to praise the inflated spending program for roads and bridges. “I ran for president because the only way to move this country forward, in my opinion, was compromise and consensus,” Biden said. Meanwhile, Conservative spokespersons were arguing with his transport secretary whether the concrete structures meant to attract attention were racist.

Pete Buttigieg suggested last week that some were. “If a highway was built with the aim of dividing a white and a black neighborhood, or if an underground passage was built [too low to allow a] buses carrying mostly black and Puerto Rican children on a beach… this obviously reflects racism. Tucker Carlson – who claimed that the infrastructure bill was not about infrastructure but that it was a “race-based climate plan / takeover / redistribution plan” – called Mr. Buttigieg from “the dumbest people in the world”.

The 39-year-old, who took advantage of mayoralty in Indiana’s fourth largest city to launch an unlikely and impressive presidential campaign, is cerebral. A Harvard and Oxford alumnus, he was interviewed on the runway in half a dozen languages ​​(including Norwegian, which he learned to read from a favorite novelist in the original). He is also right about infrastructural racism. Non-white communities were often bulldozed to make way for the national road network. This is one of the reasons a typical white family is eight times richer than a typical black family, a staggering disparity.

The right-wing contempt reflected not only indifference to racial injustice, but also how much the Biden administration has straddled the spending bill. Even if Democrats pass a $ 1.85 billion companion bill, covering social and climate policy, the infrastructure package will be a big part of the legislative toll Mr Biden will take mid-term. The appointment of Mr. Buttigieg to the Ministry of Transport, whose budget has just been increased by more than half, was made in this perspective. A large, unglamorous agency, known inside the ring road for its geek efficiency and barely outside, the department has never been run by such a rising star. And the equally geeky Indianan’s task of selling infrastructure madness as a defining triumph for the presidency became even more important as Mr. Biden’s ratings plummeted. Rarely has the daily work of repairing bridges and potholes been filled with such desperate hopes.

Sadly for Democrats, even the sexiest legislation does not bode well for mid-term success. Voters responded to the arrival of Medicare in 1965, the tax cuts of Reagan in 1981 and Obamacare in 2010 by punishing the presidential party. And they will feel the benefits of better roads much more slowly than they have appreciated these measures. Yet it must be recognized that generating insane enthusiasm for mundane ideas and governance is Mr. Buttigieg’s specialty.

A new film about his campaign, “Mayor Pete”, highlights the incongruity between his banality and the passions he stirred. He shows his followers happily celebrating his appearance – dressed like a stylish science teacher, in crisp shirt and tie, no jacket – and hurrying towards him. He won Iowa, came second in New Hampshire, and was more enthusiastic than any other contender except Bernie Sanders. Part of the enthusiasm was about the historic nature of his candidacy, as an openly homosexual man. But it was also a testament to his ability to turn his meager resume, as South Bend’s top garbage collector, and run-of-the-mill centrism into a compelling message of moral strength and generational change.

Mr. Biden, whose own campaign has been less memorable, has his best speaker where he needs him most. Mr Buttigieg has already visited a dozen states to encourage impending spending. This sparked gossip about his future. Vice President Kamala Harris, whose presidential campaign has been even less inspiring than that of Mr. Biden, is emerging as an increasingly external gamble to succeed him. Some Democrats want to sideline her, every time Mr Biden steps down, for the more talented Mr Buttigieg. It is overwhelming for Democrats that such a speech is underway. (Within a year of starting Mr. Biden’s first term, they seem less sure who their next presidential candidate is than Republicans.) It’s also premature; not least because Mr. Buttigieg’s increased exposure carries risks.

One concerns the management of impending insanity. He understands that politics and messages are only loosely related (with characteristic precocity, he corresponded with linguist George Lakoff on the subject while still at Harvard). But few messages can survive a failed policy, and his department’s limited control over its resources makes embarrassment inevitable when so much money is flowing. Its primary responsibilities are to pass security regulations and funnel money – mostly under strict guidelines from Congress – to state and city governments. How they spend it will be largely out of Mr Buttigieg’s hands. At the same time, a massive increase in the amount of discretionary spending available to him – that will amount to around $ 42 billion next year – will consume him and make him appear more responsible for overall spending than he does. Mr Buttigieg used to argue that managing South Bend’s small budget was ideal training for federal leadership. He better hope that is the case.

A bridge to nowhere

Another vulnerability is the administration’s determination to justify everything it does in terms of racial justice, as Mr. Buttigieg’s recent remarks have illustrated. As well-intentioned as they are, they have raised a question of redress for racist planning to which he has no answer. Communities that have been bulldozed cannot be reunited. It does not plan to favor poor minorities in its spending. Righting historical wrongs does not seem to be part of its remit; so it would be better if he did not raise expectations on the left and blood pressure on the right by suggesting that it is. He already has enough on his plate.

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Pete Buttigieg’s Impossible Job”