By Jasmine Wright, CNN
That was the official line from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday as he tried to downplay chatter about his political future, which has become increasingly intertwined with Vice President Kamala Harris, his traveling companion on an infrastructure-themed trip Thursday.
The trip came as Washington chatter has heated up over the possibility that Buttigieg could be positioned as the future standard-bearer of the Democratic Party instead of the vice president, should President Joe Biden not run for reelection in 2024. The notion has ignited reports of a shadow rivalry between the pair that hung over their joint trip to North Carolina to tout the newly passed infrastructure law and its effect on the nation’s transit.
“The whole point of campaigns and elections is, when they go well you get to govern. And we are squarely focused on the job at hand,” Buttigieg told reporters in a mid-flight gaggle aboard Air Force Two.
While it’s unclear whether the joint event was intended to quell chatter of the quiet competition — a White House official told CNN the trip was planned a “while back,” as is other vice presidential travel with Cabinet secretaries — but both Harris and Buttigieg appeared to take great effort to show that all was well with the barrier-breaking Democratic stars.
Before taking off, Buttigieg left Air Force Two to greet Harris upon her landing at Joint Base Andrews. Standing alongside Democratic Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina, he and Harris shared a quick hug that Harris initiated.
Touring a bus depot in Charlotte, Harris turned to Buttigieg before boarding a new electric bus, saying, “Secretary, will you join me?” Inside, Harris joked the vehicle “has that new bus smell,” which drew a laugh from the secretary. And when she sat down at the wheel of the bus and blasted the horn, Buttigieg was right by her side.
The pair’s goodwill appeared to reach a crescendo when Buttigieg dedicated a portion of his remarks to praise the hours Harris logged helping to turn the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law, recounting a time where she spoke at “just the right moment” in the Oval Office, telling the lawmakers about “the need to think big, not to get lost in the details of the politics.”
“She was exactly right,” he said. Harris later thanked Buttigieg for his “extraordinary work” as secretary.
Buttigieg, 39, and Harris, 57, were once rivals, along with a group of more than a dozen others, when they competed for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. Since then, the pair’s husbands, Chasten Buttigieg and Doug Emhoff, have touted their friendship and posted to social media about their walks around the nation’s capital.
“Interviewed a new babysitter today,” Chasten Buttigieg wrote on Instagram the same day as their spouses’ trip, posing in a photo with Emhoff, who was pushing the Buttigieg twins’ stroller.
But Thursday’s not-so-effortless broadcast of a cheerful relationship in front of network cameras and traveling print journalists comes as guessing games about who could take Biden’s place is underway among Democrats.
Biden has told allies privately and announced publicly that it is his intention to mount a reelection campaign. But his reassurance has not fully stifled the doubters, and Harris’ role as the second-in-command — a heartbeat away from the presidency — would seemingly put her in pole position to be the next Democratic presidential nominee.
However, CNN reported last month that many in the vice president’s orbit have expressed frustration that Harris has not been adequately prepared or positioned by the White House and instead is being sidelined.
The Transportation secretary’s role in the future of Democratic politics has been one that has been closely watched. Harris loyalists told CNN they saw an unfair standard at play after West Wing aides provided cover to Buttigieg when he was attacked by the right, while Harris had not received similar protection after multiple missteps that brought similar criticism.
But on Thursday, Harris’ allies sought to downplay any lingering tensions.
“The only people thinking 2024 is the DC bubble and Donald Trump,” one former aide told CNN. “As far as I can tell, it was a pretty good trip where two stars of the Democratic Party are highlighting a chief administration accomplishment in a 2022 and ’24 battleground.”
On Air Force Two, Buttigieg did the same.
“As Transportation secretary I get to be the face of a lot of the investments that we’re doing, but we would not be here without the leadership of the vice president,” the President and others, Buttigieg added.
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CNN’s Isaac Dovere and Donald Judd contributed to this report.