On January 26, 2008, the day Senator Barack Obama won the “First in the South” South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, American politics changed forever.
Obama had been polling only in the high 20s just a couple months prior to that election, yet went on to win with over 55 percent of the vote. He capped the night with a victory speech that helped create a new sense of excitement and energy that propelled him through Super Tuesday and beyond.
I was working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign at the time, and what I remember about that night is how cold it was. I remember the stiff, piercing winter wind as people waited sometimes hours to vote. But I also remember how no one left the lines. No matter how cold it got, or how hard that wind blew, people just huddled closer together, refusing to let that chance pass by. They were determined to have their say, and nothing was going to stop them from voting for this transformational figure.
Today, I feel like something similar is happening in America. As I chat with Democratic caucus-goers and primary voters across the country, I feel something achingly familiar. Maybe it’s the flush of energy and optimism flooding the grassroots, or the sense – brought on in no small part by Democratic victories in November’s midterm elections – that this is a moment filled with promise and hope.
Whatever it is, I’ve felt it before…in 2008.
Yet more than a decade later, I fear there is a certain danger that could undermine that promise and hope. I fear that too many of our current slate of candidates carry the wrong lessons with them as they head into South Carolina trying to recapture that historic moment.
So, let me impart some potentially campaign-saving advice to any Democrat running for president: You are not Barack Obama. Do yourself a favor and don’t try to be.
At the end of the day, none of our candidates is the “New Obama” or “Obama’s Heir,” and none of their campaigns is “Yes We Can 2020.” That doesn’t mean they can’t create the same kind of moment that drives us to the polls in record numbers regardless of the wind and cold. But it’s going to take more than a single speech, strategy or policy.
It takes bold vision, a fearlessness that defies conventional wisdom and controversy, and a real investment in grassroots organization.
Furthermore, it takes a clear understanding that this isn’t 2008. The world has changed and not all of it has been for the better. People are frustrated. People are scared. People are angry and rightfully so.
A successful candidate will have to show voters that he or she is different than any politician they’ve seen before; that he or she is willing to take on issues that affect working families (white, black and brown); that he or she is not afraid to stand up with bold solutions to real problems like gun safety, justice reform and the wage erosion that’s destroying our nation’s middle class.
A successful candidate will have to make us believe again. If you do, you will have a chance to do something amazing. You will have a chance to change the world.
Being compared to one’s predecessors is not a new problem. If you’ll remember, they compared Franklin Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson, they tried to equate John F. Kennedy to Roosevelt, and they even tried to label then-Senator Obama the “RFK for a new generation.”
But we should also remember that one of the most striking things about candidate Obama was that he defied such labels and defined himself in his own terms. He refused to step into that pitfall and, in doing so, demonstrated genuine leadership.
Let me say that word again: genuine, because that’s what matters.
In the primaries as well as the general election, authenticity is the coin of the realm. As a voter, that’s what I’m looking for and I’m not alone. Any candidate hoping to change his or her address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue must first and foremost be genuine.
Instead of trying to look like Obama, or sound like Obama, or measure up to Obama, why not be like Obama where it really counts, and just be genuine.
Because authenticity, like trust, cannot easily be repaired once broken. Like trust, without it we cannot succeed. With it we cannot fail.