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DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg says Biden deserves more credit for his successes

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden went on the offensive almost immediately in last night's State of the Union address, making the case for why he should be reelected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom of democracy been under assault at home as they are today. What makes our moment rare is the freedom of democracy under attack at both at home and overseas.

CHANG: Now, the president hit on a wide range of topics, from the war in Ukraine to reproductive rights to the economy. And in the audience was the secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, who is here with us now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thank you - good to be with you.

CHANG: Good to have you. OK. I want to start with the economy because it does seem like President Biden has had a hard time convincing American people that the economy is thriving. I mean, some polls are showing only about 4 in 10 people approve of Biden's handling of the economy. How frustrated is Biden about the fact that voters seem to have felt better about the economy under former President Trump than under him?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, certainly a lot of us in the administration believe that the president should be getting more credit for economic achievements like the lowest unemployment in 50 years, the most jobs created under any president ever, real wages rising and at the same time, I think, recognize that people have been through a lot. There's been a lot of whiplash over the last five years or so, much of it triggered by COVID. I think the bottom line is if you feel like the administration and the president should get more credit, it's important to get out there and take some credit. And the president, I think, rightly did so last night.

CHANG: But why do you think the perception of the economy is still sagging among American people?

BUTTIGIEG: Look. I think it takes a while for some of these benefits to flow through, certainly when we talk about the process of wages overtaking the price increases that we felt. Inflation in the U.S. may be lower than it is in any of the other developed countries. But that's no comfort if you're watching those prices going up and frustrated about that.

CHANG: I also want to touch upon, last night, the fact that there were a number of disruptions from Republicans. There was one pretty awkward exchange from Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.

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BIDEN: I'd be a winner - not really...

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: What about Laken Riley?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Booing).

BIDEN: Lincoln Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal.

CHANG: You can hear the president mispronouncing Laken Riley's name there and also referring to a Venezuelan migrant who was arrested for her murder as an illegal. Biden's been getting a bit of criticism right now for using that term, illegal, which the administration removed from official communications about three years ago, right?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the president was responding, playing back the language that was being hurled at him from the House floor. But the substance of what he said next was explaining why this tragic situation should not be a political football, why it should not be used to generalize an attack on migrants or immigrants and why that kind of generalization goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of the former president referring to immigrants as polluting the blood of the American people. He took a forceful stand against that.

CHANG: But I need ask you, like, when you heard him use that phrase, an illegal, what went through your mind sitting in the audience?

BUTTIGIEG: Again, he was responding to the language that was being thrown at him from the floor. The position that he put forward is clear, which is that America can secure its border if only we had the bipartisan cooperation that we seemed to have in Congress until President Trump put a chill on congressional Republicans' willingness to do something about it. But we can't secure our border in a way that is compatible with our values, not at odds with our values. That's been his policy, and that's his approach.

CHANG: Well, a huge issue for Biden going into this election is his age. And, you know, in the Republican rebuttal last night, Alabama Senator Katie Britt - she hit that issue pretty hard, Biden's age. And I have to ask you, when Biden mis speaks or when he says things like illegal, even if he is borrowing language or echoing language he's just heard, why shouldn't voters be concerned about Biden's age?

BUTTIGIEG: Part of why last night was so important was that President Biden had an opportunity to lay out the achievements of this administration - the historic economic gains, the historic infrastructure package, which is, of course, the piece that I get to work on most here at the Department of Transportation. But also, I would say one more thing, which is he delivered that message last night with a measure of clarity and strength and command that demonstrated - was a chance to show, not tell, the opposite of some of the things that people say about him.

CHANG: Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation. Thank you very much for joining us today.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Kathryn Fox
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.