“And today,” he added, “a ninth.”

There has never been an openly gay cabinet secretary. Under President Trump, Richard Grenell, who is openly gay, served as acting director of national intelligence, a cabinet-level post that is not part of the 15 cabinet posts defined by federal law. He also did not face Senate confirmation because Mr. Trump chose to make him an acting director.

At 38, Mr. Buttigieg would also be one of the youngest cabinet secretaries in history. Julián Castro was 39 when President Barack Obama appointed him housing secretary in 2014. And Alexander Hamilton was in his mid-30s when he became the nation’s first Treasury secretary.

Like both of those men, Mr. Buttigieg has higher ambitions. His bid for the presidency this year vaulted him from obscurity into the top tiers of the Democratic Party. Now, he will have a national platform from which to continue building a political identity.

But that may put him in direct competition with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, 56, who also challenged Mr. Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination and is all but certain to run for president again, perhaps as soon as 2024, when it is expected that Mr. Biden will not seek another term.

The pair expressed nothing but warmth toward each other on Wednesday, at an event in Wilmington, Del. Ms. Harris, who joined the event via video because of a winter storm on the East Coast, called Mr. Buttigieg a “trailblazing leader from the industrial Midwest who understands we need to create opportunity for people of all backgrounds.” Mr. Buttigieg thanked the vice president-elect for “your trailblazing leadership, your encouragement and your friendship.”

The good feelings might evaporate quickly if Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris end up facing off against each other in a primary campaign that could begin in just over two years. Or Mr. Buttigieg could defer to Ms. Harris, waiting until he has a clearer path to the White House.

Mr. Biden called Mr. Buttigieg “a policy wonk with a big heart” and said he “selected Pete for transportation because the department is at the intersection of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better.”

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