By Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Sean Sullivan,
From left, Demetrius Freeman; Sarahbeth Maney From left, The Washington Post; pool photo
PARIS — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg started his week in the White House press briefing room promoting a crown jewel of President Biden’s legislative agenda — a landmark public works package that recently passed with bipartisan support.
He explained how the legislation would benefit communities of color, where he found little support when he ran for president. Later, the former mayor touted the plan at the COP26 climate summit in Scotland, enjoying a global spotlight. And he posed for photos with former president Barack Obama, smiling as the popular ex-president rested a hand rested on Buttigieg’s shoulder.
At the same time, Vice President Harris traveled to Paris at a fraught moment for the U.S.-French alliance, as well as for her own tenure. She faced questions from reporters about whether she needed to make amends for a U.S. submarine deal that had enraged the French government, the latest thorny issue she has had to navigate. At one point, a reporter shouted, “Vice President Harris, did you apologize?”
For now, at least, Harris and Buttigieg, barrier-breaking Democrats who failed in their initial White House bids, are the highest-profile prospects to succeed Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket in 2024 or 2028, although other promising candidates are all but certain to emerge. Biden has said he plans to run for reelection, but as he nears his 79th birthday, even some of his allies are not sure he will.
Many Democrats see Harris’s and Buttigieg’s political fortunes as diverging in the first 10 months of Biden’s presidency. While Buttigieg has become a visible advocate for the administration’s top legislative achievement, Harris often has been associated with its biggest trouble areas, including immigration and voting rights — and, in the past week, U.S.-French relations.
“Those of us that are supportive of the vice president, or who were supportive of her when she was running for president, we realize she’s been the face of some of the hardest issues,” said JA Moore, a South Carolina state representative who backed Harris in the Democratic primaries, then endorsed Buttigieg after Harris dropped out. “It would be nice to have some things that she could rally the nation around. But that’s not what she’s been given.”
Moore said Buttigieg has begun addressing one of the main flaws of his campaign, a glaring lack of support from voters of color. “He’s not just a quick learner where he could spout out Martin Luther King or Frederick Douglass quotes, but where he could spout out salient points about the displacement of African Americans as it relates to building highways and bridges,” Moore said.
The prospect of former president Donald Trump making another White House bid has put Democrats increasingly on edge, sharpening their scrutiny of Buttigieg and Harris. Aides to both officials said they are focused on doing their jobs and that the two have a good relationship. Buttigieg was Harris’s debate preparation partner in last year’s general election, and their spouses have become friends.
Vice President Harris during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Harris made history in January when she became the first woman and first Black and Asian American person to be sworn in as vice president. It capped a remarkable political revival for the former U.S. senator from California, whose campaign for president ended before the first nominating contest, and it opened a path toward running again for the presidency someday — something party leaders privately say they expect.
But over time, many Democrats have grown more anxious about Harris’s performance and prospects, citing factors both within and beyond her control. Some say Biden has done his vice president few favors.
In June, he tapped Harris to spearhead the battle against Republican-led voting restrictions; it was a role she requested. Civil rights leaders have voiced frustration that the administration has not been able to enact voting rights legislation, with some lashing out at the president for not pressing for a change of the Senate filibuster rule, which they see as a main barrier to action. Biden has said changing the rule would have cost him critical votes for his immediate economic and foreign policy agenda, and Harris has said she is not giving up on the issue.
“I have a problem with her portfolio, mainly because of the way the president engages on those issues,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who endorsed Harris’s presidential bid. “You know it’s hard to pass voting rights with the president being mute on the filibuster.”
In March, Biden handed Harris an even more difficult problem, the task of addressing the root causes of irregular migration to the United States from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — countries collectively known as the Northern Triangle — at a time when migrants were surging toward the southern U.S. border. Border arrests reached an all-time high this past fiscal year, and some Republicans gleefully dubbed Harris the “border czar.” The vice president visited the border in June after being needled by Republicans on the issue.
One California Democrat, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid, summed up Harris’s plight this way: “You’ve got a whole bunch of lemons — can you craft lemonade out of it? It’s very hard to do it.”
Advisers to Harris acknowledged that her portfolio includes an array of tough issues, saying that showing progress may take time. They contend that she navigates hurdles no vice president has faced before: She is a woman of color and often faces subtle or overt racism and sexism, or a disproportionately heavy questioning of her qualifications.
But they said she also has influenced many of the other issues facing the administration, although not always publicly.
One Harris adviser cited a 25-minute conversation between Harris, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and top Biden economic adviser Brian Deese about bottlenecks at U.S. ports, a crucial subject for the administration.
Harris advisers and West Wing officials also said she has met repeatedly with lawmakers to push Biden’s agenda, with and without the president being present. Harris spent the night of Nov. 5, when the pivotal House infrastructure vote took place, on the phone with key legislators, including the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), they said.
Some Democrats had a different impression, saying the vice president often has appeared disconnected from the high-stakes negotiations over Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill, despite her experience in Congress. One noted that on Nov. 5, Harris also visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. While the White House was rounding up congressional votes for the infrastructure bill, she spent part of her time operating a robotic arm being tested for a future refueling mission of the Landsat 7 satellite.
Polls this year reflect the extent of Harris’s political challenge. In a Fox News survey last month, forty-five percent of registered voters approved of Harris’s performance as vice president and 53 percent disapproved.
The vice presidency is often a political quagmire even for skilled politicians, as those in the office are tarnished by the president’s missteps while lacking the freedom to establish themselves as leaders. But, privately, some Democrats say Harris also deserves some of the blame for her political problems.
Several mentioned her trip to Latin America in June, when she sat for an interview with Lester Holt of NBC News that was widely regarded as botched. Pressed by Holt on why she had not yet been to the border, Harris shot back, “And I haven’t been to Europe,” adding, “And I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”
A subsequent Harris trip to Asia was overshadowed by Biden’s chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Her visit to Paris appeared choreographed to showcase Harris as a world leader, comfortable playing a role on the world stage and without the tumult of prior trips.
On Wednesday, she toured the American military cemetery at Suresne, which overlooks the Paris skyline. As cameras clicked and reporters scribbled notes, she laid hands on the headstones of service members who died a century ago.
A day later, Harris attended an Armistice Day ceremony with French President Emmanuel Macron and opened the Paris Peace Forum, an event focusing on socioeconomic inequality, saying, “No single nation can take on inequality alone.” On Friday, Harris delivered remarks at a conference on Libya, a country that has been engulfed in strife since the Arab Spring of 2011.
The Washington Post
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at the White House on Nov. 8 during the daily news briefing.
Although the Paris trip went more smoothly than her previous travels as vice president, Harris could not escape the shadow of the administration’s missteps, including a recent U.S.-Australian security pact that scuttled a preexisting agreement between France and Australia.
After Harris arrived at the Élysée Palace to greet Macron, a reporter shouted out, “Do you need to make amends?” She replied, “I’m very happy to be in Paris.”
As the sitting vice president and a historic figure, Harris is likely to remain at the center of the conversation about Biden’s successor. But many Democrats increasingly see Buttigieg, the country’s first openly gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary, as part of that conversation as well.
“I expect [Biden] to run again,” said Steve Westly, a California investor and top Biden fundraiser in 2020. “If he doesn’t, I think Harris is clearly the favorite. But I think we’ve got a deep bench. I think people like Secretary Buttigieg. … He now has additional seasoning in a position as secretary of transportation, with a national profile.”
Buttigieg’s growing media presence is evident in his many television interviews and other appearances promoting the infrastructure plan. On Monday, he fielded questions from reporters at the White House, the first Cabinet secretary to do so after the bill’s passage.
“When our communications team presents me with copy, I usually cross out the word ‘excited’ because I think it’s overused, and I often rub out the exclamation points because it’s not always my style,” Buttigieg said. “But we are excited, with an exclamation point, about what we’re going to be able to deliver.”
Buttigieg’s team noted that his department will be transformed from a $90 billion agency into a nearly $140 billion agency, and already he has visited more than a dozen states and held roughly 300 calls with members of Congress in both parties to discuss the plan. He is expected to hit the road in coming weeks as part of a broader effort by Cabinet officials to advertise the law’s benefits.
But some Democrats said Buttigieg’s lane is not without its own hazards, especially as Republicans attack the administration for the current backlog of seaborne goods destined for the United States. “It’s not like he’s having a rosy time. He’s having to figure out the supply chain issue,” Sellers said.
Beyond that, some voters may be slow to accept a presidential candidate who is openly gay, married to another man and recently adopted twins. And it is far from clear that voters of color will look beyond his past struggles with racial issues.
Buttigieg often infuses his comments on transportation policies with a description of their impact on communities of color. At the White House on Monday, he said that highway underpasses had sometimes been purposely built low to prevent buses with Black or Latino riders from getting to a beach. “That obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” he said.
The assertion came from “The Power Broker,” a book on city planner Robert Moses by prizewinning author Robert Caro, though some have challenged its veracity. Buttigieg’s comments were mocked by Republicans as a claim that even roads are racist, but within his own party, such comments have helped Buttigieg improve his standing.
“I like his courage — I like his backbone,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, former president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. “He doesn’t shrink away from a fight, and I like that.”
While Harris and Buttigieg are seen as potential rivals down the road, they get along well for now, according to people with knowledge of the dynamic between them. After Harris’s well-received performance in her debate last year against then-Vice President Mike Pence, for which Buttigieg had helped her prepare, they shared a toast.
Sullivan reported from Washington. Scott Clement and Michael Scherer in Washington contributed to this report.