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Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With Allie Bice.
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PETE BUTTIGIEG has been MIA.
While U.S. ports faced anchor-to-anchor traffic and Congress nearly melted down over the president’s infrastructure bill in recent weeks, the usually omnipresent Transportation secretary was lying low.
One of the White House’s go-to communicators didn’t appear on TV. He was absent on Capitol Hill during the negotiations over the bill he had been previously helping sell to different members of Congress. Conservative critics tried (unsuccessfully) to get #WheresPete to trend and Fox News ran a story on October 4 with the headline: “Buttigieg quiet on growing port congestion as shipping concerns build ahead of holidays.”
They didn’t previously announce it, but Buttigieg’s office told West Wing Playbook that the secretary has actually been on paid leave since mid-August to spend time with his husband, Chasten, and their two newborn babies.
“For the first four weeks, he was mostly offline except for major agency decisions and matters that could not be delegated,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. “He has been ramping up activities since then.” As he does that, Buttigieg will “continue to take some time over the coming weeks to support his husband and take care of his new children,” the spokesperson added.
That ramp has been steep this week, as Buttigieg reverts to his “go everywhere” media habits.
Since Oct. 7, Buttigieg has appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “MSNBC with Geoff Bennett,” CNN’s “New Day,” CNBC’s “Morning Bell,” Bloomberg TV’s “Balance of Power,” and the NPR Politics Podcast. He participated in virtual events to promote the infrastructure bill with the Commercial Club of Chicago and the Citizen Budget Commission of New York. He also attended a high-profile meeting with President JOE BIDEN Wednesday on supply chain bottlenecks.
In case reporters missed the flurry, the department blasted out an email to the press noting several of Buttigieg’s media appearances with the subject line, “ICYMI: Secretary Buttigieg Highlights Administration Efforts to Address Ongoing Supply Chain Disruptions.”
Buttigieg’s time away to help care for his children is the latest example of paid leave for new parents becoming more common in the United States, even at the highest levels of government.
Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget SHALANDA YOUNG is pregnant and is planning to take “time away from the office to be with her daughter after she’s born in the next few weeks,” according to an OMB spokesperson. Sen. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D-Ill.), the first senator ever to give birth in office, took 12 weeks maternity leave when her daughter was born in 2018, though she famously appeared on the Senate floor with the newborn to cast a vote.
Advocates of paternity leave cheered Buttigieg for setting an example. “It absolutely reflects changing norms and changing needs,” said DAWN HUCKELBRIDGE, the director of the group Paid Leave for All. “I’m thrilled that the secretary did that and showed that work and family go together.”
In the past, Cabinet secretaries felt compelled to come back sooner. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development JULIÁN CASTRO took about a “week or so” of leave after his child was born, his spokesperson told us.
In part, that’s because Cabinet secretaries are not eligible for the same paid family leave benefits that federal workers are. “Individuals in the executive branch who are appointed by the President to positions in the Executive Schedule are not covered by the leave system,” a spokesperson for the Office of Personnel Management said. “They do not earn leave and serve at the pleasure of the President. The President can choose to allow him to take time off.”
Asked if Biden approved the leave, a White House official didn’t directly answer but said in a statement that “Pete’s been a key member of the team since Day One, and has been critical as we shepherd the President’s agenda across the finish line. We’re overjoyed for him and Chasten, and believe every American should have access to paid family leave.”
Do you work in the Biden administration? Are you in touch with the White House? Are you DANIELLE MILLONES, director for leadership and training?
Our call out yesterday was to MYLES MANN. But sources tell us that Mann recently left the White House to attend Stanford Business School. We still want to hear from you though, MYLES!
We want to hear from you — and we’ll keep you anonymous: [email protected].
Or if you want to stay really anonymous send us a tip through SecureDrop, Signal, Telegram, or Whatsapp here.
Today’s trivia is courtesy of journalist BEN JACOBS. Which president was sworn into office in what is now an Indian grocery store?
KAMALA SHOUT-OUT — Vice President KAMALA HARRIS gave a nod to the outgoing executive chairman of Mastercard in remarks today at the Global Inclusive Growth Summit hosted by Mastercard and the Aspen Institute. “Thank you to the Aspen Institute and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth for hosting this summit. And in particular, I want to thank AJAY BANGA for your invitation to join today and for your leadership of the Partnership for Central America.”
Banga has a developing relationship with the VP. He sat next to Harris at her May 27 event on private sector investment in the Northern Triangle countries and sits on the board of the “Partnership for Central America” that was launched in conjunction with that meeting. MICHAEL FROMAN, the trade representative during the Obama administration, is also on the board of the partnership.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: Unemployment numbers are making their way back to a “pre-virus pace.” White House chief of staff RON KLAIN tweeted a Yahoo story by EMILY McCORMICK that pointed out a “much larger-than-expected drop in initial unemployment claims last week.” And Klain noted: “The week we got here, over 800,000 filed for unemployment. This week, only about 290,000.”
White House rapid response director MIKE GWIN tweeted a White House statement on the jobless claims data, which was extremely cheery, noting that with Covid-19 cases and unemployment claims declining, “it is clearer than ever that America is in the midst of an historic economic recovery.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: A CNN Business story by MATT EGAN with the headline, “Biden alone can’t end the supply chain crisis.” Egan notes that there’s only so much that the federal government can do to help a system controlled in large part by private businesses.
“Industry sources described the effort as a significant move that will help, but hardly end, the supply chain crisis that’s hovering ominously over the U.S. economy this holiday shopping season,” Egan writes.
“‘The White House is doing the right thing,’ said Moody’s Analytics senior economist Tim Uy. ‘But I wouldn’t characterize it as a gamechanger. It’s a step in the right direction.’”
ABOUT THOSE AMBASSADORS — Yesterday, we quoted an Insider story penned by BRETT BRUEN, whom we called a frequent Biden basher and a former Obama administration official. Bruen, in the Sept. 26 piece, said the State Department only advanced a long list of career diplomats set to take over ambassadorships to the White House in late September.
We asked the White House about the notion that the administration has moved slowly to advance the nominations of career diplomats, and Bruen’s claims, specifically, and they did not offer a response. But State Department spokesman NED PRICE later reached out to WWP to push back on Bruen’s claim: “The allegation that the Department only recently put forward career officials for senior postings, including Ambassadorships, is entirely false. We have done so routinely,” Price said via email, characterizing Bruen as “a source who routinely peddles inaccurate information.”
Filling the Ranks
FDA PICK COMES INTO VIEW — Biden is likely to nominate former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner ROBERT CALIFF to return to the top role at the sweeping regulatory agency, SARAH OWERMOHLE, DAVID LIM and ADAM CANCRYN report.
If confirmed by the Senate, Califf would take over the FDA as it is poised to make key decisions on coronavirus vaccines and treatments while facing criticism of recent controversial drug approvals and widespread burnout due to the ongoing pandemic. Califf previously served as commissioner for nearly a year in Obama’s second administration after an overwhelming vote in his favor.
ANOTHER TARGET FOR TED CRUZ: The president has tapped veteran diplomat CHRIS HILL to be ambassador to Serbia. Hill is best known for serving as ambassador to Iraq during President BARACK OBAMA’s first term, but he was also part of the negotiating team whose efforts led to the Dayton Peace Agreement, ending the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Hill was one of five new nominees the White House announced this afternoon.
DEBT DOUBLE DOG DARE — Sen. Minority Leader MITCH McCONNELL may be insisting that he won’t help Democrats solve a debt ceiling impasse again. But CHRIS CADELAGO reports White House officials are still anticipating that the Kentucky Republican will climb down as yet another deadline approaches in December, after he convinced 10 Republican colleagues to break the logjam last week.
MEET THE POPE: The president will embark on a three-leg trip to Europe starting at the end of October that will include a Vatican meeting with POPE FRANCIS, the White House announced today.
NICK NIEDZWIADEK writes that prior to the G20 summit in Rome, Biden, the second Catholic president in U.S. history, will visit the Vatican for an audience with the pope. The confab will cover “working together on efforts grounded in respect for fundamental human dignity, including ending the Covid-19 pandemic, tackling the climate crisis, and caring for the poor,” according to the White House.
What We’re Reading
The Iran deal is dead. What is Biden’s Plan B? (WaPo’s Josh Rogin)
Biden bringing top brass to Glasgow climate talks (E&E’s Jean Chemnick)
Biden commits 17 million J&J doses to African Union (The Hill’s Morgan Chalfant)
Inside Biden’s push to protect immigrant workers in labor probes (Bloomberg Law’s Ben Penn)
He gave remarks in the South Court Auditorium about the administration’s Covid-19 response and vaccination program.
Later, he held a bilateral meeting at the White House with Kenyan President UHURU KENYATTA. Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN, deputy national security adviser JON FINER, USAID Administrator SAMANTHA POWER, Assistant Secretary of State MOLLY PHEE, NSC senior director for Africa DANA BANKS and NSC coordinator for democracy SHANTI KALATHIL also attended the meeting.
She and Sen. Duckworth participated in a virtual town hall organized by Care Can’t Wait, and moderated by AI-JEN POO, co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance to discuss the different care policies in the president’s Build Back Better agenda.
She also addressed the Global Inclusive Growth Summit virtually.
The Oppo Book
When one thinks of RAHM EMANUEL, romance may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to Japan was there the day that press secretary JEN PSAKI met her future husband, GREGORY MECHER.
The two were working for Emanuel who, at the time, was running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but Psaki had only been on the job for a short while. As she was trying to set up a web video for her boss, a call came in that the driver who was tasked with bringing him to an event in Philadelphia was lost.
Emanuel, with his world famous patience (lol), was dropping expletives in the backseat and next to him was Mecher, who was the committee’s deputy finance director.
Psaki tried to guide them (tried being the operative word). And eventually they found their way to the location. We’ll let the Washington Post’s 2010 write up take it from here: “Mecher moved on from thinking, ‘Why did she get us lost?’ [to] ‘She’s cute.’”
CHESTER A. ARTHUR. Then-Vice President Arthur was sworn in as president on the first floor of his New York City home at 123 Lexington Ave, per Atlas Obscura. It was the second NYC inauguration, with GEORGE WASHINGTON’s being the first.
Today, Kalustyan’s market occupies the first floor of 123 Lexington. Don’t believe us? Here’s the Google Street View.
AND A CALL OUT — A big thanks to Ben for sending over this question! Do you have a harder trivia question about the presidency? Send us your best one and we may use it: [email protected].
We want your trivia, but we also want your feedback. What should we be covering in this newsletter that we’re not? What are we getting wrong? Please let us know.
Edited by Emily Cadei