No rivalry here? Buttigieg lavishes praise on Harris amid staff shakeup, 2024 speculation

A joint trip by Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to North Carolina on Thursday delivered the prominent message that she still outranks her Cabinet colleague, despite her rock-bottom approval ratings, a major staff shake-up and rising speculation that Mr. Buttigieg will supplant her as the Democratic Party’s next top presidential contender.

Traveling to Charlotte to highlight the administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, Mr. Buttigieg went out of his way to shower the vice president with compliments. He told reporters on Air Force Two that “we would not be here without the leadership of the vice president, as well as the president, of course.”

Speaking later in front of an electric bus at a transportation hub, Mr. Buttigieg devoted about one-fifth of his six-minute prepared speech to praising Ms. Harris. He recalled an Oval Office meeting about the legislation in which the vice president spoke up “at just the right moment” and made comments that were “exactly right.”

“It’s just one very small example of the countless ways in which her presence has made an impact on this monumental legislation,” he said.

When it was the vice president’s turn to speak, she addressed Mr. Buttigieg for all of 11 seconds.

“You’ve been doing extraordinary work, and thank you for that,” she told him.

Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris made the closely watched trip as more staff turmoil emerged on the vice president’s team. Senior adviser and chief spokeswoman Symone Sanders resigned less than a year into the job. Communications Director Ashley Etienne quit two weeks ago, and three other key aides are leaving Ms. Harris.

The vice president had her staff shake-up in mind when she settled into the driver’s seat of the electric bus and honked its horn.

“The wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round,” she said, letting out a big laugh as Mr. Buttigieg watched.

A White House official said the trip “builds on the vice president’s work with President Biden and the Cabinet to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law through dozens of public events nationwide.” The official compared the visit to Charlotte with Ms. Harris’ trip to Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 19 with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

Reince Priebus, a White House chief of staff during the Trump administration, said West Wing drama “happens in every administration, but it’s another thing when you’re completely ineffective.”

“These two people, the president and the vice president, are completely unusable on the campaign trail,” Mr. Priebus said on Fox News. “People would run through a wall for Trump, and the same was true for Barack Obama. The core support was very strong.”

He said Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris are “not delivering any policies to their base. So [White House] communicators are the first ones out.”

As Ms. Harris’ job approval rating plummeted to a historically low 28% in a poll last month, Democrats’ angst has risen about who will lead the party if Mr. Biden, the nation’s oldest president at 79, decides not to run in 2024.

Mr. Biden has said he intends to seek reelection, but voters increasingly have doubts about his health and mental fitness. Only 40% of voters in a Politico/Morning Consult poll last month agreed that Mr. Biden “is in good health,” while 50% disagreed — a 29-point shift since October 2020.

The same survey found that 46% of voters believe Mr. Biden is mentally fit, while 48% disagree. A year ago, the same poll showed Mr. Biden with a 10-point advantage on the question of mental fitness.

Some have suggested that Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris could run on the same ticket, either in 2024 or 2028, instead of squaring off against each other in what could be a divisive primary.

Asked about the speculation over 2024, Mr. Buttigieg told reporters that he and Ms. Harris are instead “squarely focused on the job at hand.”

“It’s 2021,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “And the whole point of campaigns and elections is when they go well, you get to govern.”

He said he is “excited to be part of a team led by the president and the vice president, and I think the teamwork that got us to this point is really just beginning.”

As if to prove his point as publicly as possible, Mr. Buttigieg greeted Ms. Harris with a hug in view of TV cameras upon her arrival on the tarmac to board Air Force Two at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. He made himself available to reporters during the flight and praised the vice president repeatedly.

“The vice president traveled this country speaking to people about what an investment in jobs and infrastructure could mean for their communities,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “She spent countless hours helping the president negotiate with members of Congress. She worked to make sure that clean school buses, clean water and environmental justice were included, all of which are issues that she championed in the Senate as well.”

The friction between the West Wing and the vice president’s office has arisen in part over the issues that Mr. Biden has delegated to Ms. Harris, including illegal immigration and voting rights. The administration has struggled mightily0, and Ms. Harris’ communications staffers appear to be taking the brunt.

Ms. Sanders said in her resignation letter that she was “grateful” to the vice president.

“Every day, I arrived [at] the White House complex knowing our work made a tangible difference for Americans,” she wrote. “I am immensely grateful and will miss working for her and with all of you.”

Ms. Harris said of her departing adviser, “I love Symone.”

“I can’t wait to see what she will do next,” the vice president said. “I know that it’s been three years jumping on and off planes going around the country … and I mean that sincerely.”

She wouldn’t answer a reporter’s question about whether she sees the move as a reboot for her team.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said turnover in any administration is “natural.”

“Working in the first year of a White House is exciting and rewarding, but it’s also grueling and exhausting,” she said. “It’s also an opportunity, as it is in any White House, to bring in new faces, new voices and new perspectives.”