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Pete Buttigieg. Photo: JIM WATSON / Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden is considering a high-profile ambassadorship for Pete Buttigieg, possibly sending him to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: The 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, whom Biden has compared to his late son, Beau, played a key role in Biden's nomination. Letting him deepen his foreign policy chops could boost Buttigieg's future, since many inside the Democratic Party believe his return as a presidential candidate is a matter of when, not if.

  • Buttigieg electrified donors and rocketed to the top of the party, winning the most delegates in the Iowa caucuses earlier this year before dropping out to consolidate moderates' support around Biden.
  • But finding a Cabinet position for him has been a challenge as the former VP focuses on nominating women and people of color to high-level posts.
  • China isn’t the only foreign post where Buttigieg, a polyglot, could end up — and his name remains under discussion for some domestic leadership positions as well.

The intrigue: The Beijing post has often gone to experienced politicians, toward the middle or end of their careers, as a way to confer respect to the Chinese.

  • A Buttigieg nomination would invert that model and give the Chinese an opportunity to get to know a potential future president. That happened with George H.W. Bush in 1974, when President Ford appointed him to the U.S. liaison office in Beijing.
  • Bush was 50 at that time; Buttigieg, if confirmed by the Senate, would be 39.
  • The U.S. relationship with China will remain deeply consequential and complex.

Behind the scenes: Biden passed over Buttigieg, an Afghan war vet, to be his ambassador to the United Nations, the job said to be Buttigieg's top choice.

  • Axios reports that initial conversations over leading the Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t firm up, while Buttigieg's name is still mentioned among those under consideration for other domestic posts, including Transportation or Commerce.
  • But he has signaled to the transition team that he’s most interested in the foreign policy or national security realm, sources tell Axios.

Between the lines: Some of Buttigieg’s backers see a political upside to a domestic Cabinet role in which he can build his relationship with Black voters, who largely rejected his candidacy.

  • There’s also concern he could be left out of the Biden administration's starting lineup altogether, despite having been one of Biden’s first rivals to endorse him after the South Carolina primary.
  • At the time, Biden said of Buttigieg: "I don't think I've ever done this before, but he reminds me of my son Beau. I know that may not mean much to most people, but, to me, it's the highest compliment I can give any man or woman."

Go deeper

China sanctions top Trump alumni one day after Uyghur genocide determination

Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

China's Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday it would sanction 28 "anti-China" U.S. politicians, including a slew of top officials from the outgoing Trump administration such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton and former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Between the lines, via Axios China expert Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: Chinese government officials have traditionally decried the use of unilateral sanctions by Western countries, even though China regularly blocks foreign companies and individuals from its markets for perceived political slights.

Bush labels Clyburn the “savior” for Democrats

House Majority Whip James Clyburn takes a selfie Wednesday with former President George W. Bush. Photo: Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush credited Rep. James Clyburn with being the "savior" of the Democratic Party, telling the South Carolinian at Wednesday's inauguration his endorsement allowed Joe Biden to win the party's presidential nomination.

Why it matters: The nation's last two-term Republican president also said Clyburn's nod allowed for the transfer of power, because he felt only Biden had the ability to unseat President Trump.

Updated Jan 19, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden Cabinet confirmation schedule: When to watch hearings

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Jan. 16 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Hearings for President Biden's Cabinet nominations to lead the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, Energy, and Veterans' Affairs started Tuesday.

Why it matters: It's been a slow start for a process that usually takes place days or weeks earlier for new and incoming presidents.