PHILADELPHIA – Bill Clinton felt Americans’ pain. Barack Obama senses their anxiety.
Angst about inflation, crime and the economy is on the rise. Rather than shy away from that reality, Obama tells voters he understands.
“It’s frustrating and scary. I get it. So does Joe,” he told a rally in Philadelphia on Saturday. “But the question is, who’s going to do something about it?”
Obama has spent the final days of the midterm campaign telling voters in battleground states that the despair they're feeling about a litany of issues isn't President Joe Biden's fault, and it won’t be alleviated in Pennsylvania or anywhere else by electing more Republicans.
Democrats are drawing on Obama’s star power and unique ability to tap into Americans’ emotions as they seek to amp up turnout for their candidates.
Supercharged support from nostalgic left-leaning voters, especially Black voters and young people, could prove decisive in states such as Pennsylvania, where Obama and Biden reunited to campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and Senate hopeful John Fetterman. Shapiro is favored to win his race against Republican state senator Doug Mastriano.
Obama mixed humor with warnings about the consequences for the country if too few Democrats turn out, allowing Republicans to sweep the midterms.
"I know there are probably some students here, right?" Obama told the crowd at Temple. "You know that roommate of yours who, well meaning, nice person, but they’re a little bit slack."
"They’re the folks who, they’ll leave stuff in your little mini fridge a little too long because they forgot about it. Sometimes, they miss class in the morning and in the afternoon. That person, they might tell you they’re voting, but they might not have voted yet," the former president said to laughter.
Obama mocked Mastriano on Saturday for posing in a Confederate uniform for an Army War College faculty photo.
"It wasn’t even Halloween!" he said. "It was like casual Friday, or something.
"Listen, Pennsylvania, let’s remember what century it is. And listen, this would be funny, it would be an SNL skit if it weren’t so serious. You cannot let somebody that detached from reality run your state."
Fetterman, who spoke just before Obama, marveled at the former president's oratory skills while also making references to his own May stroke, which he has said caused auditory processing issues for him.
"Let me tell you – anyone in recovery of having a stroke, really the worst guy you have to go before, Barack Obama coming up," he said, referring to the former president as the “GOAT” – greatest of all time.
Fetterman’s performance last month in the Senate contest’s only debate has fueled doubts about his recovery. He is running neck-and-neck with his GOP opponent, celebrity doctor and former television star Mehmet Oz.
Some Democratic voters may have doubts about Fetterman’s condition but said Saturday that electing him far outweighed the alternative.
“Everybody’s mind is made up. And the fact that people came out today is because we missed Obama,” said Ramadan Bayyan, a 68-year-old retiree who said he advance voted.
Many attendees of the rally, which Democratic officials said 7,500 people attended, had already cast their ballots or committed to voting for Fetterman. They were mainly at the event, they said, to see the former president.
Wistfulness for Obama remains strong, nearly six years after he left the White House. Supporters say his charisma, intelligence and relatively scandal-free presidency continues to resonate with disaffected voters.
“I love Barack Obama. I’m sad every day that he’s not been in office,” said Shannon Mahler, a 52-year-old stay at home mom who came to the rally in an Obama '08 t-shirt.
Obama ended his eight-year presidency with a 59% approval rating, according to Gallup — an enviable position compared to the 34% of Americans who felt that way after one term of Donald Trump.
But it wasn’t always so easy for Obama, who much like Biden now, had a 45% approval rating when the first midterm election of his presidency was held. Democrats received a “shellacking,” Obama said at the time. They lost six seats in the Senate and 63 seats in the House in 2010.
In 2014, crushing losses for Democratic congressional candidates spelled doom for Obama's legislative agenda on immigration reform, gun control and climate initiatives.
“I’m not big on looking backwards. But sometimes I can’t help imagine what it would have been like, if enough people had turned out to vote in those elections,” Obama observed.
He added, “If we had kept the Senate in 2014, we’d have a very different Supreme Court making decisions about our most basic rights.”
The speech marked the end of a six-state swing that also took Obama to Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona.
Obama campaigned for Democrats twice on Saturday, in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, concluding his early evening remarks just as Trump arrived in Latrobe, Pa. to campaign for Oz and Mastriano.
“I was backstage. I was getting fired up! I’m ready to go!” Obama said as he began his Philadelphia remarks. "Fired up, ready to go" was a signature line for Obama during his first presidential campaign. He has often told the story of the woman, Edith Childs, who inspired the chant – and lifted Obama's own spirits – on a rainy day in 2007 in South Carolina.
Biden had served as the warm-up act, speaking ahead of Shapiro – Pennsylvania's attorney general – and Fetterman – the state's lieutenant governor – while Obama took the stage last.
The two presidents arrived together, taking turns waving and patting each other on the back, as voters screamed loudly over Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars.” The pair eventually grasped hands with the Democratic candidates and each other, lifting them high in the air in a show of unity.
"A Sky Full of Stars" also played as fireworks lit up the sky at 2020 victory rally for Biden and Kamala Harris, who had just made history as the first Black woman elected as U.S. vice president.
Part of Obama’s aim was to motivate young people, who trend progressive, to show up at the polls on Tuesday.
"I can tell you from experience that midterms matter a lot,” he said at one of several points of reflection on the election blows that Democrats suffered during his presidency.
Yet much of Obama’s speech was aimed squarely at shoring up support for his former vice president, who had a 44% approval rating in the latest USA/TODAY Suffolk University Poll of voters nationally, and 38% job approval in a Pennsylvania-specific survey.
“Sometimes we get so focused on the presidency, but I’m here to tell you that our democracy works as a team sport,” Obama told voters in Philadelphia. “A president can’t do stuff alone. That’s not how our system is set up.”
Biden won Pennsylvania by a little over a percentage point and fewer than 100,000 votes but has seen his support fall off in the state in which he was born, despite making numerous official and campaign visits.
Pessimism about the economy has eroded Biden's approval ratings, despite the president's efforts to reassure people. Americans across the country say that generally speaking, they feel terrible about the direction of the country.
Obama sought to validate Biden on Saturday, saying his former No. 2 was an “outstanding president” who is “doing stuff right now” and “solving problems right now with a Democratic Congress.”
“Democrats may not be perfect. I’m the first one to admit it. I wasn’t perfect. Joe, he’ll tell you,” Obama said, to which a supporter shouted, “yes you were.”
Continuing, Obama added, “But right now, at this moment, with a few notable exceptions most Republican politicians aren’t even pretending that the rules apply to them anymore. They’re not even pretending the facts apply anymore. They just make stuff up.”
Biden has delivered similar messages, including several days prior, when he pleaded with Americans in a Washington, D.C. speech to reject political violence, MAGA Republicans and election deniers.
“I think Obama’s more inspiring on average,” said Alex Puhalla, a 32-year-old Philadelphia resident who said he had already voted for Fetterman. “I love Biden, he’s a Scranton boy, so obviously I love him, but Obama’s very inspiring, and because he’s not the current president, he can speak off the cuff, and he can be direct.”
Rally goers said that Obama’s frankness, prior experience in office and rhetorical style helps his message resonate with voters in a way that Biden’s simply doesn’t.
Macey Schrieser, a 18-year-old Temple University student, said that Biden is doing what he can in the current makeup of Congress, but there’s more that he could have done on student debt.
“I think now that it’s getting closer to election season, He’s definitely stepping up,” she said. “But it could have came earlier.”
A lack of enthusiasm for Biden and his policies has threatened Democrats’ majority and put his political future in jeopardy.
“He was the choice we had to make to get Trump out of office. He wasn’t maybe our favorite choice, but he was the choice we had to make to get a Democrat who follows our beliefs into office,” said Schriefer, who will have the opportunity in 2024 to vote in her first presidential election.
Schriefer came to the rally wearing vintage Obama campaign apparel.
Mahler, a stay-at-home mom sporting Obama gear, said she’s not energized by a second Biden term, even though she empathizes with the family tragedies he has endured and appreciates his Pennsylvania roots. But she said she would support him again in 2024 if he’s the most electable Democrat.
“There was a lot that we connected with him, as well. I am less enthused since he ran for president and became president,” she said. I don’t know what it is: but to me there’s been some changes in his dynamics.”
“If I could have Obama back, that’s who I want. I want Obama and Michelle every day of the week,” Mahler said.