Pete Buttigieg smiled, shifting his weight in front of a bunting backdrop as people chanted his name at his caucus-night rally in Des Moines, Iowa. It was early February. He came bearing a message of triumph. “Tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality.” He paused. The corners of his lips curled up. He allowed the chants to wash over him. “Iowa,” Buttigieg said, “you have shocked the nation.”
The cadence, the emotion: They were familiar. Barack Obama had his own nation-shocking moment in Iowa 12 years ago. “They said our sights were set too high,” Obama bellowed to the faithful who had gathered to celebrate his victory over Hillary Clinton on January 3, 2008. “This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable.”
Obama—young, handsome, and from a midwestern state—came preaching hope and unity in the face of division. It worked exceedingly well … for him. But virtually any candidate who has attempted to do the same—from Jon Ossoff in Georgia to Beto O’Rourke in Texas to Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic primary—has drawn charges of trying to be Obama-lite. You can’t blame these men for trying. Much of the political class still idolizes Obama for his oratory. He could command an audience with a pregnant pause. He made voters feel like he was speaking directly to them even when addressing tens of thousands at a time.
Tonight, Buttigieg announced that he would be suspending his campaign for the Democratic nomination. As he stepped to the podium, he wore his trademark smile, but with more reserve. He paused to embrace the moment’s weight. “We love you!” one person shouted. “It’s so good to be in South Bend,” he responded. He joked, he choked back emotion, and he spoke of the hope his campaign had inspired.
He did exactly what he’s done throughout the campaign: connected with people through speech. That habit, or skill, is part of why people drew the Obama comparison. But there’s a fine line between emulation and mimicry, and if voters pick up the wrong signals, candidates risk being viewed as inauthentic. Such was the common criticism of Buttigieg when he delivered lines on the campaign trail that mirrored those of Obama. At one point, he was even accused of plagiarizing the former president. With nearly two-thirds of voters believing that Donald Trump will win reelection, according to a CBS News poll, Democrats are still trying to find a way to viscerally connect with voters. “What Barack Obama figured out very early on in his career is that when you have people who are in despair, that have been beaten by life or circumstance or policy makers or any level of unfairness, they want hope,” Anton Gunn, Obama’s 2008 South Carolina political director, told me. “And so you have to speak to that.” Several candidates have tried.
The country has changed since 2008, and even if the Obama-esque way of talking to voters—appealing to hope and unity—connects with some Americans, will it ever be able to connect with enough for Democrats to win the sorts of electoral victories Obama did? Robert Lehrman, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, told me that he believes people tired of Obama’s speeches as early as 2012. “Just like a song doesn’t sit at the top of the charts forever, people fell out of love with hearing the same platitudes,” Lehrman said.
Buttigieg ended his campaign with a flourish, his eyes full of fire. His closing riff was trademark Obama, trademark Buttigieg, trademark appeals to a unified America. “What if we were the ones” to change the country, Buttigieg repeated time and again, echoing Obama’s line from Super Tuesday in 2008. “The chance to do that is in our hands. That is the hope in our hearts. That is the fire in our bellies.”
“That is the future we believe in.”