By Alexandria Jaffe and Bill Barrow
Former President Barack Obama blasted President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, his culpability in national discord and his overall fitness for the job on Wednesday as he made his first in-person campaign pitch for his former vice president, Joe Biden.
With less than two weeks before Election Day, Obama used a drive-in campaign rally in Philadelphia to assure voters that Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, can mend a fractured country. He lauded the merits of democracy and citizenship as “human values” that the United States must again embrace.
“America is a good and decent place, but we’ve just seen so much nonsense and noise that sometimes it’s hard to remember,” Obama said, after spending much of his 35-minute speech upbraiding Trump as “incapable of taking the job seriously” and interested only in himself.
“I’m asking you to remember what this country can be,” Obama said. “I’m asking you to believe in Joe’s ability and Kamala’s ability to lead this country out of these dark times and help us build it back better.”
Obama’s visit to Philadelphia underscores the significance of Pennsylvania, the Rust Belt state that helped deliver Trump the White House four years ago. Pennsylvania is the battleground state that Biden has visited the most this campaign season. Trump has prioritized the state as well, aware that his path to victory would narrow considerably without the state’s 20 electoral votes. The president on Wednesday was in Erie, one of a handful of Pennsylvania counties that Obama won twice before it flipped to Trump.
Obama paid heed especially to disillusioned voters, including Black men and progressives wary of Biden. He urged them not to sit out the Nov. 3 election, warning that complacency from some liberal voters is what helped Trump get elected four years ago.
“What we do these next 13 days will matter for decades to come,” Obama said. “The fact that we don’t get 100% of what we want right away is not a good reason not to vote.”
As with his Democratic National Convention speech two months ago, Obama pulled no punches on his successor. This time, though, he employed humor, sarcasm and outright incredulity befitting the trappings of a campaign rally. Tieless and with his sleeves rolled up, Obama stood on a stage facing car-bound supporters watching him on screen and rewarding his attack lines with a cacophony of honking horns.
Beneath the scorn was a defense of his own record.
“I never thought Donald Trump would embrace my vision or continue my policies, but I did hope for the sake of the country that he might show some interest in taking the job seriously,” Obama said. Trump “wants full credit for the economy he inherited and no blame for the pandemic he ignored.”
He disparaged the GOP’s “shameful” attempts to gut the 2010 Affordable Care Act while always promising a replacement. “It’s been ‘coming in two weeks’ for the last 10 years. Where is it? Where is this great plan to replace Obamacare?” he asked. “There is no plan. They’ve never had one.”
Noting Trump’s penchant for insulting “anybody who doesn’t support him,” Obama vouched for Biden’s “empathy (and) decency,” and he argued the distinction matters beyond style.
“Why would we accept this from the president of the United States, and why are folks making excuses for that?” Obama said. “There are consequences to these actions. They embolden other people to be cruel and divisive and racist.”
Four years ago, Obama delivered Hillary Clinton’s closing argument in Philadelphia — at a rally for thousands the night before Election Day on Independence Mall. With his reprisal for Biden, Obama reminded voters of 2016, when Trump upset Clinton narrowly in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to forge an Electoral College majority despite losing the popular vote nationally.
“I don’t care about the polls,” Obama said. “There were a whole bunch of polls last time. Didn’t work out because a whole bunch of folks stayed at home and got lazy and complacent. Not this time. Not this election.”
The roundtable was a personalized version of the same message, with the nation’s first Black president urging Black men not to give into apathy. The host city, Philadelphia, is among the Democratic bastions in key battleground states where Black turnout four years ago fell off from Obama’s 2012 reelection in large enough numbers to tip the election in Trump’s favor.
Obama said he understood young voters’ skepticism and disinterest. “I’ll confess, when I was 20 years old, I wasn’t all that woke,” he said, adding that young Black men are “not involved because they’re young and they’re distracted.”
But he said not voting gives away power because politicians respond to and reflect the citizens who cast votes.
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“One of the biggest tricks that’s perpetrated on the American people is this idea that the government is separate from you,” Obama said. “The government’s us. Of, by and for the people. It wasn’t always for all of us, but the way it’s designed, it works based on who’s at the table.”
Despite the smaller scale, Democrats say Obama remains perhaps the party’s greatest campaign asset, including for Biden, given their personal ties.
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Obama already had hosted virtual events geared to younger voters and lent his name to texts and emails encouraging supporters to register to vote and donate money to the campaign. He has also been a big money draw for the campaign. One virtual fundraiser he headlined with Biden in June brought in $7.6 million, and he’s raised money and appeared in ads for down-ballot Democrats.
He is also planning to campaign for Biden in Miami on Saturday.
Obama said the future of the country is at stake.
“We’ve got to vote like never before,” he said in Philadelphia, “and leave no doubt.”