Read: Obama still sounds like a president
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.
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Ossoff, who ran for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District seat in a 2017 special election, quickly gained national attention but finished with 48 percent of the vote—9,000 votes fewer than Karen Handel, who won the seat. One former senior Ossoff staffer told me that the cadence Ossoff employed “represents a bit of a steady hand, something familiar.” He denied that the former House candidate, who is now running for the Senate, imitated Obama intentionally, but added that, for voters, Ossoff’s style was refreshing. “It says that you care enough about the subject matter upon which you’re speaking to give it a necessary thought.”
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.”