A Pete Buttigieg presidency would come with plenty of firsts. The youngest United States president ever. The first openly gay one. The first mayor to go almost straight from a city hall to the White House. And, surely, the first president to meet his future spouse on a dating application.
But first, he has to get there. Standing in his way are nearly a dozen other Democrats, many of them with more money, more name recognition, better poll numbers, and far more experience. And then there is President Donald Trump. It will be a long slog.
The 38-year-old former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, certainly has enough ambition for the road ahead of him. And the smarts.
Born the only child of two college professors (his father emigrated to the US from Malta) and raised in South Bend, Buttigieg was the valedictorian of his high school class and went straight to Harvard upon graduating. After finishing up at Harvard in 2004, he attended the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and walked out with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics.
Following a short period as a consultant with McKinsey Company and just a few months before he launched his political career, Buttigieg walked into a recruiting office and signed up for a six-year stint in the US Navy Reserve. It was during the middle of that stint, in 2011, that he was first elected mayor of South Bend. Four years later, following a seven-month tour as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, he came out as gay.
After losing a statewide bid for Indiana state treasurer, Buttigieg was re-elected mayor in 2015 and began to attract the attention of national players when he ran for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee but dropped out midstream. Two years later, in April 2019, the man with the tongue-twister surname (it is pronounced boot-edge-edge) announced that he was running for US president.
“They call me Mayor Pete,” Buttigieg told a crowd inside the shell of a decaying auto plant in his hometown when he officially announced. “I recognise the audacity of doing this as a Midwestern millennial mayor. More than a little bold – at age 37 – to seek the highest office in the land … But we live in a moment that compels us each to act.”
Instead of running from his youth and inexperience, Buttigieg has embraced it, casting himself as a modest Midwesterner that brings a necessary “generational change” to the US political scene. In a field with four 70-something-year-olds – five if you include Trump – it is a message that has resonated with younger voters.
Buttigieg, a devout Christian, is unapologetically progressive, but has tacked more to the centre than some of his Democratic rivals – especially on the cornerstone issue of healthcare. So far in the campaign, he has saved most of his ire for the current president, calling Trump the “least qualified candidate” to run for the office in 2020.
Medicare for all who want it
Buttigieg has dismissed his Democratic opponents’ plans for a sweeping overhaul of US healthcare into a government-run, single-payer system as excessively disruptive and expensive. Instead, he has pushed a plan that preserves private insurance but still allows people to “opt in” to a national, single-payer system. “Medicare for all who want it” is his term for it.
“We make sure that everybody can afford [public health insurance], but we don’t require you to take it. And partly I think that’s just the right policy, because I think people should be able to choose,” Buttigieg said in an NPR interview in November 2019. “But it’s also really important that that’s a policy that commands the support of most Americans … We have a moment where we can get something that big done and most Americans want it done. That’s not true of some of the other ideas out there, which would make it much harder to actually achieve them no matter how good they sound in campaign season.”
Buttigieg says his plan would cost about $1.5 trillion dollars over 10 years and be funded largely by rolling back the tax cuts that Trump signed off on in 2017. He has also said he supports opening up the existing Medicare system to people aged 50 to 64, and the creation of a fund that would guarantee all workers up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave to care for newborns or ill family members.
Despite his lack of direct foreign policy experience, Buttigieg has made foreign policy and the US’s role on the world stage a key element of his campaign. He sees himself as part of a post-9/11 generation forged by endless wars and has railed against Trump for conducting foreign policy via what he called tweets and tantrums.
Buttigieg has said he would “repeal and replace” the 2001 congressional authorisation that US presidents since have used to justify foreign military intervention. And while he objected to Trump’s decision to remove US troops from Syria, he has said the perennial presence of soldiers in the Middle East and Central Asia must come to an end.
Unlike some of his Democratic rivals, Buttigieg is generally supportive of Israel but has called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian question and has criticised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “turning away from peace”. He has said he opposes annexation of the occupied West Bank and told Jewish leaders in the US that he would be open to conditioning US military if Israel continues down that path.
“The world needs America,” he said in a June 2019 speech outlining his foreign policy. “But not just any America. Not an America that has reduced itself to just one more player, scrapping its way through an amoral worldwide scrum for narrow advantage. It has to be America at our best.”
In the same speech in 2019, Buttigieg predicted that the world faces decades of “climate-driven international instability” and called climate change the “security challenge of our era”. He called on the US to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and to engage again with the rest of the world and tackle the issue.
Two months later, in a more comprehensive position paper on the issue, he said leading internationally on the issue should be one pillar of a multipronged approach. The plan he proposed, while less costly than those of some of his challengers, would set ambitious goals for reaching zero emissions over the next 30 years and focus resources on disaster preparedness and infrastructure to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“Despite what we hear from this administration and from far too many Republicans in positions of responsibility, climate disruption is here,” he said in the June speech. “It is no longer a distant or theoretical issue, it is a clear and present threat.”