Why are people comparing Buttigieg and Obama…and is it helpful?

A young and intelligent candidate could use Iowa to launch themselves to victory. That sounds very familiar.

The Buttigieg/Obama comparisons are in the news again. Evan Halper’s quote in the LA Times which referred to the ‘failures of the Obama era’ was erroneous, as Halper himself clarified. Nonetheless, it’s not the first time the current Mayor and former President have been spoken of in the same sentence.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg has one of the most complex relationships with Obama of anyone in the field. He doesn’t have the direct connection Biden does, but his relationship goes back much longer than the weekend’s misquote. In April this year, long-time Obama ally and now Buttigieg friend David Axlerod observed that the Mayor has plenty in common with the former President, saying “His fluency on faith and his willingness to speak about it is an asset… Carter, Clinton, and Obama — they all shared that quality”. High praise indeed.

Comparisons to Obama have come and gone since then, but along with Halper’s comments, Pete’s speech at the Iowa Liberty and Justice celebration has refocused some attention. Both candidate’s performances seem to have yield a positive impact on their respective candidacies. Polling now suggests Buttigieg is as high as 19% in Iowa, only 1 point off the leader, Elizabeth Warren. A Buttigieg win there, much like Obama in 2007, would change the game.

Chasing after Obama might seem like a high value addition to his already impressive resume which includes a Rhodes Scholarship, speaking eight languages, musical talents, military service, a photogenic partner and political experience in a state where Mike Pence’s own town went Democrat earlier this month. An Obama-esque angle would a useful addition.

But, for some, Pete has lacked an emotional connection; perhaps because of his lack of experience, especially with regards to national issues, perhaps because his more centrist ambitions don’t ignite the same fire in his supporters as Bernie’s of Warren’s do.

As this article from 2007 illustrates, Obama suffered a similar diagnosis up until this point as well. A strong affiliation with the Obama campaign from now on could help that.

Obama has said on record that he won’t endorse until the candidate is selected, so that’s out of play. But the ability to align with his legacy is a powerful asset that neither Warren nor Bernie want to even attempt to gain. It’s powerful because CBS/YouGov polling concluded that a staggering 91% of Democrats view Obama’s presidency as either excellent or good, whereas only 2% view it as poor. It’s also powerful because, to put it crudely, he won. Twice.

Indeed, Biden’s connection to the only black President is arguably why he’s doing so well, especially in states like South Carolina and Nevada. Despite Biden’s mediocre campaign — both his fundraising and crowd gathering have been underwhelming, the former Vice President defends strongly his time in the administration and I would suggest it is no coincidence that he regularly tops the polls as well.

The young Mayor had just turned 27 when Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, so how has he been able to align so well with Brand Obama?

The comments from former Obama strategists help, but more fundamentally the Mayor seeks to mirror the former President’s rhetoric, tactics, and spirit; preaching an optimism of youth which urged Americans to look forward and hope for the future. Light on policy at this stage? Sure. But harder on vision and values.

Obama spoke of the ‘incompetence and Karl Rove politics’, Buttigieg speaks ending the ‘chaos and corruption and the tweets’. Obama was the first black President, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay one, and the youngest too. Pete is no carbon copy, but if he wants inspiration from anyone, the only Democrat president this side of the millennium is a good place to start.

Policy wise, Pete is competing in a different age than Obama (obviously). But a comparison can still be made — namely around healthcare. Pete’s healthcare plan is deliberately different to Warren and Bernie’s as he has sought to distance himself from the Medicare for All types. Instead, he argues for “Medicare for all who want it. It means we create a version of Medicare, everybody can get access to it, and if you want to keep your private plan we’re okay with that”.

The tactic implication of that being, therefore, is something akin to Obamacare instead. In fact, in response to Harpen’s aforementioned misquote, Buttigieg specifically mentioned his support form Obama’s health care policy.

However, it is not that easy. Mayor Pete’s apparently seamless assimilation with Obama is much more complicated moving forward.

Conventional wisdom assumes that, with the fall of Harris, the really competitive field looks something like Biden and Buttigieg versus Sanders and Warren. Therefore, for Pete to advance, he likely relies on Biden slipping and creating some space in the centre lane— something that certainly feels possible at least.

But, with Biden’s success resting on his connection to his Obama years, Pete has to that voters differentiate between candidate Obama and president Obama. They remember the rip-roaring moments of his unprecedented candidacy — which Buttigieg will attempt to mirror — but not tar the Mayor with the brush of an, at times, underwhelming and frustrated administration.

Of course, the best way for Buttigieg combat this and mirror Obama’s candidacy would be to win; starting with a surprise performance in Iowa. If, as the polls suggest now, Buttigieg has at least a half-decent chance, then he must now go all out for a surprise first place.

While it would deny other candidates momentum going into New Hampshire and pile the pressure on colleagues such as Biden, Warren, and Sanders, it is at this stage unlikely that Pete is set to win there anyway. Instead, much like Obama did, he would have to concede to a different candidate.

That’s maybe OK, though. Because winning Iowa from a once-unexpected position is a carbon copy Obama move. It would simultaneously propel the Mayor into the very top tier of candidacy, and dear I say it, leap frog Biden while securing an Obama legacy asset. Pushing through to South Carolina, Nevada, and Super Tuesday doesn’t look as strong for Pete yet, but there is no better launch-pad that coming from behind to win Iowa. Just ask Barrack.

Writing mostly on US politics from across the pond. Occasionally detour into sports/sport performance, and UK politics/culture.

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