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Cabinet secretaries hit road to pitch president's agenda

by The Associated Press | June 15, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
FILE - In this June 1, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden walks down the stairs of Air Force One with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge as he arrives in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, FIle)

WASHINGTON -- Marty Walsh remembers what it was like when a Cabinet secretary would come to town.

"It really is a big deal. They give you the dates, and you just clear your schedule," said Walsh, a former mayor of Boston.

He recalls 300 people packing into a room to hear Julian Castro, then Housing and Urban Development secretary. "He was speaking on behalf of President [Barack] Obama and Vice President [Joe] Biden, and people hung on every word."

Now Walsh, as secretary of labor, is on the other side of the equation, crisscrossing the country on behalf of President Biden's American Jobs Plan. As the massive infrastructure package goes through torturous negotiations in Congress, Walsh and a handful of other Cabinet secretaries have launched an ambitious travel schedule to promote the plan and the larger Biden agenda.

"It's clear the administration has decided to take their message on the road," said Ravi Perry, head of the political science department at Howard University. "The amount of trips, how much they've traveled ... there really has been a shift."

Starting around the beginning of May, Biden's Cabinet members have made dozens of TV appearances and trips around the country, promoting the Biden agenda with an ambitious roadshow.

"I don't know that I can think of an equivalent to this kind of rollout," said HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, who in recent weeks has traveled to Newark, N.J.; Kansas City, Mo; and Tulsa. "We are an extension of the administration. We are carrying the president's agenda."

That agenda stands at a critical crossroads as the infrastructure package faces a unified bloc of Senate Republicans, who decry it as excessive and unnecessary. Meanwhile some Senate Democrats remain leery of using their slight numbers advantage to force the package through without some bipartisan support.

Last week, Biden called off negotiations with a group of Republican senators and announced he would be formulating a new approach. The bill is Biden's top legislative priority and its fate could prove critical to his ability to maintain momentum early in his administration.

With simmering issues such as voting rights reform, police brutality, immigration and gun control on the agenda, Biden's ability to deliver on his proposals is being closely watched by both Republicans and the Democrats' own progressive wing.

The Cabinet outreach campaign is particularly striking in the context of the country's gradual emergence from the covid-19 pandemic. Although restrictions on mass gatherings are being lifted all around the country, several Cabinet secretaries noted that the national mood is not quite ready for large political rallies.

"You're not getting the crowds, of course," said Walsh, who misses the intimacy of working lunches without social distancing restrictions. "It really restricts what you can do. You want to be around people."

Much of the traveling has been done by Biden's Jobs Cabinet: Walsh, Fudge, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

Buttigieg, who said he was "itching to get on the road since Day One," said the presence of a Cabinet secretary brings particular gravitas. More than perhaps any position in government, he said, Cabinet secretaries are a direct extension of the president and his policies.

"You represent the administration and the president, writ large," said Buttigieg, who has traveled to North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. "It's a way to let people know that they're important."

A former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Buttigieg recalled, "It was a pretty big deal if a regional administrator for a federal agency came to town, much less a Cabinet secretary."

The campaign is proceeding with active coordination from the White House. Fudge said her department plans her travel schedule, but the White House regularly makes requests for her to appear in certain places or arranges for her to team up with another secretary for an appearance.

Biden announced the informal Jobs Cabinet grouping in April, telling reporters that the quintet would be asked "to take special responsibility to explain the plan to the American public."

Anita Dunn, senior adviser to Biden, described the Cabinet members as "accomplished people who represent the administration and allow us to increase our reach."

It also helps that several of the secretaries are former mayors, like Buttigieg and Walsh, or former governors like Granholm and Raimondo, enabling them to find easy common ground with local officials and stakeholders.

"That's a huge advantage for the administration," Dunn said.

Information for this article was contributed by Lisa Mascaro of The Associated Press.

FILE - In this May 3, 2021, file photo Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks during a roundtable discussion at Howard University in Washington. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 3, 2021, file photo Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks during a roundtable discussion at Howard University in Washington. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP, File)
FILE - In this March 30, 2021, file photo Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, right, departs a news conference to announce the expansion of commuter rail in Virginia at the Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Alexandria Station in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
FILE - In this March 30, 2021, file photo Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, right, departs a news conference to announce the expansion of commuter rail in Virginia at the Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Alexandria Station in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
FILE - In this May 6, 2021, file photo Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, center, speaks with people before a news conference in Hoboken, N.J. More than eight years after Superstorm Sandy overwhelmed the New York City area, Hoboken is breaking ground on a flood resiliency project that is part of a $230 million plan funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
FILE - In this May 6, 2021, file photo Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, center, speaks with people before a news conference in Hoboken, N.J. More than eight years after Superstorm Sandy overwhelmed the New York City area, Hoboken is breaking ground on a flood resiliency project that is part of a $230 million plan funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
FILE - In this May 21, 2021, file photo Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg receives a tour of an underground tunnel for the expansion of the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport plane train tunnel at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 21, 2021, file photo Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg receives a tour of an underground tunnel for the expansion of the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport plane train tunnel at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 5, 2021, file photo Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Secretary of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo participate in a roundtable with women-led small business owners in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
FILE - In this May 5, 2021, file photo Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Secretary of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo participate in a roundtable with women-led small business owners in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
FILE - In this May 3, 2021, file photo Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks during a roundtable discussion at Howard University in Washington. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 3, 2021, file photo Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks during a roundtable discussion at Howard University in Washington. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 19, 2021, file photo Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, visits the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge construction site together with District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, in southeast Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, FIle)
FILE - In this May 19, 2021, file photo Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, visits the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge construction site together with District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, in southeast Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, FIle)
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