The Ascendancy of Pete Buttigieg and Obama’s Legacy

by Savas Abadsidis – May 11, 2019 (, abridged)

Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, finds himself trying to navigate the historic nature of his candidacy, without it defining him.

Part of Buttigieg’s appeal, like Obama’s, is that he presents as a nerd.

Obama was our first nerd president, and Buttigieg may out Obama Obama in that department. Buttigieg even sounds like Obama. Not in the way that Trevor Noah, who does a masterful Obama impression, sounds like him. With Buttigieg you get the sense that he’s immersed himself, method-like, in the role. It’s especially evident in his Obama-esque calm and Vulcan-like inability to be shaken or respond emotionally to vitriolic and homophobic attacks. It’s also evident in his flawlessly executed retorts. It’s in the way he can elucidate complicated issues while simultaneously dismantling and unpacking intentionally obfuscated legal language .

It’s Buttigieg’s brain that is at the heart of his mass appeal among a populace of closeted sapiosexuals.

Mayor Pete gets us going, not because he’s gay, but because he read the book and studied for the test while we were getting stoned in our neighbors’s basement. And Buttigieg is not ashamed of his wonkish tendencies. His memoir, Shortest Way Home, presents a compelling narrative for his executive competence, devoid of any emotional entanglements.

Like Obama, Mayor Pete has a knack for taking incredibly complicated policy issues and social issues and making people have “a ha” moments after hearing them. Just ask David Axelrod. Axelrod, who helped mold Obama for national office, hasn’t been so effusive about a candidate since he met a young Obama. And one wonders if Axelrod (and Obama) are playing a larger, silent role in Buttigieg’s circle of counsel. You hear echoes of Axelrod/Obama in the language Buttigieg used when he acknowledged that he understands the historic nature of his candidacy. His demeanor even appears to take cues from Obama.

When asked by The Advocate, “Like Obama, you’re an incredibly symbolic candidate. Is there anything from the Obama playbook that you’re stealing?” Mayor Pete responded:

I think he was somebody who understood the historic nature of his candidacy and also found a way not to let that completely define him, and I think about that a lot.

I know it means a lot, as the first out queer person to get this far in this process. I also know that it’s important because I think what success looks like is that it would not be newsworthy. I think it’s important to run our own playbook, that’s not as The Queer Candidate, but just as a good candidate who happens to be queer.

And finding ways to neither shrink from nor depend on that or any other element to my identity, I think, is something that he did very well, and something I think that anybody else from a minority group thinking about how to manage these questions of identity and policy and presence in the national field can learn a lot from.

Neighborhoods not polar bears

Buttigieg has expressed general support of a national “Green” deal (although not necessarily Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ plan). But in the same interview with The Advocate, he talks about how reframing and shaping the way people think about issues affects their reactions. Buttigieg says that the conversation around issue of climate change should be reframed to be both relevant and urgent to everyone and easy to understand. Buttigieg argues that any messaging on the environment that employs imagery of polar bears suffering and ice walls collapsing, are too abstract to lead to behaviour change. Instead, Buttigieg wants to raise awareness showing urban neighborhoods that have been destroyed by historically unprecedented floods in South Bend, and the rest of the country. That kind of messaging he posits, would bring the sense of urgency and call-to-action needed to combat climate change.

When asked what he feels he brings to the table, besides being gay, that isn’t brought by some of the more high-profile candidates like Kamala Harris, Buttigieg pauses, he says that he sees them all as competitors, not opponents.

“I think the thing about having so many of us in the field is that … you’re not competing against any individual,” Buttigieg explained in The Week. Buttigieg gets to just stand out and prove how he is “simply not like any of the others,” he continued.

Buttigieg genuinely feels like he brings something that’s missing from the conversation. “I don’t think we have enough voices from the industrial midwest, flyover country, you know where I live, I don’t think we have enough voices from local governments,  and I don’t think that marinating in Washington D.C. really prepares you for executive office. We also don’t have enough millennial voices–and they and the subsequent generations are the ones that have to live in the future being left for them.”

“That’s why our playbook is different. No one else can have this same strategy and that’s why it’s working,” Buttigieg says confidentially. But, The New York Times, suggests Buttigieg’s meteoric rise in the polls is a genuine, organic authentic appeal that simply cannot be spun.

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