Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination, and ultimately the presidency, not only because he wasn’t Donald Trump but because he also convinced enough swing state voters that he wasn’t Bernie Sanders. He’s a centrist with an agenda that first allayed the fears of moderate Democrats and then their Republican counterparts.
The Biden-Harris campaign emphasized its political bona fides as centrists with its pushback against the charges of “socialism” Trump levied on the ticket before Election Day. Yet, even after the Electoral College had formalized Biden’s election, the President-elect made sure to remind reporters his centrism wasn’t just for show. He told them he’s as ready to fight the left wing of his own party as he is to fight Republicans, referring to his primary opponents by saying “I respectfully suggest that I beat the hell out of everyone else.”
Not surprisingly, Biden’s immediate political focus will be to attempt a hard reboot to January 2017. Much of his presidency will be defined by his success in restoring the status quo ante — reversing Trumps’s tax cuts, actions on immigration, environmental policies, and executive orders, including military directives, that undermined non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans.
For those of us in the broader LGBTQ community, there’s little reason to imagine we’ll be in a substantially better position at the end of Biden’s administration than we were at the end of Obama’s. Despite a lengthy and detailed campaign platform, including a promise to make passage of the Equality Act a legislative priority during his first 100 days in office, Biden’s in no position to advance anything through a Republican Senate, assuming Democrats fail to pick up the two Georgia seats this week. And with the selection of Pete Buttigieg for a place in his Cabinet, he’s signaling that he already knows it.
By naming Buttigieg to be his Secretary of Transportation, Biden kept his promise of putting an LGBTQ-identified person in the Cabinet — certainly an historic event and a praiseworthy demonstration of commitment to his ideals. But there are other prominent, and far more qualified LGBTQ people in public life whom Biden could have chosen to lead the Department of Transportation. Sean Patrick Maloney is one of them. He’s a congressman from New York who’s served in the House of Representatives for eight years and is a member of its Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Another is Anise Parker who currently leads the LGBTQ Victory Fund and formerly served as both mayor and controller of the City of Houston.
Buttigieg, distinct from the rest, offers Biden a high degree of complaisance. Being eager to serve the interests of those in power who might promote his own station, Buttigieg can be expected to dutifully appear on behalf of the administration whenever someone is required to rationalize the lack of White House action on behalf of LGBTQ Americans.
Biden will subsume all of Pete’s short political career — along with his marriage — into a larger story arc where President Biden, not President Obama, becomes the main political figure in realizing LGBTQ equality since 1996. As a senior member inside the Biden administration, Buttigieg will be used as a symbol to solidify Biden’s narrative of pushing Obama toward backing gay marriage in 2012. Whenever possible, Pete will be the benchmark against which Biden measures the history of our movement for equality, his role in it, and his future ambitions for LGBTQ people (even if his presidency achieves none of them).
Unlike the openly LGBTQ members of Congress and governors whom Biden could have selected as Cabinet officials, Pete’s political career was otherwise at an apparent end. Elevating Pete over the rest makes Biden the hero who acts on behalf of LGBTQ people. What we might accomplish separately, and outside the political center, will be minimized.
At first glance, Pete’s inclusion in the Biden Cabinet appears to be a huge win. But it’s worth further inspection lest we overlook the fact that it may also be the only true “progress” we see from the new administration.
Brian Gaither (@briangaither) is an LGBTQ activist and writer living in Maryland.