COLLEGE PARK, Ga. (AP) – Former President Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail Friday in Georgia, using his first stop on a multistate tour to frame the 2022 midterm elections as a referendum on democracy and to urge voters not to see Republicans as an answer to their financial problems.
It was a delicate balance as the former president acknowledged the pain of inflation and tried to explain why President Joe Biden and Democrats should not shoulder all the blame as they face the prospect of losing narrow majorities in the House and Senate when the votes are counted together. Nov 8 But Obama argued that Republicans bent on making it harder for people to vote and — like former President Donald Trump — willing to ignore the results also can’t be trusted to care about Americans’ wallets.
“The very foundation of our democracy is being called into question right now,” Obama told more than 5,000 voters gathered outside Atlanta. “Democrats aren’t perfect. I’ll be the first to admit that. … But right now, with a few notable exceptions, most of the GOP and a whole bunch of these candidates don’t even pretend the rules apply to them .”
With Biden’s approval ratings in the low 40s, Democrats are hoping Obama’s emergence in the final weeks of the campaign boosts the party’s slate in a tough national environment. He shared the stage Friday with Sen. Raphael Warnock, who faces a tough re-election battle from Republican Herschel Walker, and Stacey Abrams, who is trying to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who defeated her barely four years ago.
Obama will travel to Michigan and Wisconsin on Saturday, followed by stops next week in Nevada and Pennsylvania.
For Obama personally, the campaign blitz is an opportunity to do something he was unable to do in two midterms during his presidency: help Democrats succeed in national midterms when they already have the White House. For his party, it’s an opportunity to capitalize on Obama’s surge in popularity since his last midterm defeat in 2014. Their hope is that the former president can sell arguments that Biden, his former vice president, has struggled to land.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Friday with Vice President Kamala Harris and plans to be in Georgia next week, potentially in a joint meeting with Obama and Democratic candidates across the state. But he has not been welcomed as a surrogate by many Democratic candidates across the country, including Warnock.
“Obama occupies a rare place in our politics today,” said David Axelrod, who helped shape Obama’s campaigns from his days in the Illinois State Senate through two presidential terms. “He obviously has great appeal to the Democrats. But he is also well-liked by independent voters.”
Obama tried to show that reach Friday. The first black president received a hero’s welcome from a majority black audience, and he offered plenty of applause for the Democrats. But he saved much of his argument, particularly on the economy, for moderates, independents and casual voters, including a defense of Biden, who Obama said is “fighting for you every day.”
He called inflation “a legacy of the pandemic,” the resulting supply chain disruption and the Ukraine war’s effects on global oil markets — a sweeping retort to Republican attempts to pin the sole blame on Democrats’ spending bills.
“What’s their answer? … They want to give tax cuts to the rich,” Obama said of the GOP. “That’s their answer to everything. When inflation is low, let’s cut taxes. When unemployment is high, let’s lower taxes. If there was an asteroid headed for Earth, they would all get into a room and say, you know what we need? We need tax breaks for the wealthy. How will that help you?”
Biden has sought to make similar arguments and was buoyed this week by news of 2.6% economic growth in the third quarter after two straight quarters of negative growth.
Still, Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist, said Obama is better positioned to convince voters who have not decided who to vote for or whether to vote at all.
“If it’s just a direct referendum on Democrats and the economy, then we’re screwed,” Smith said. “But you have to make the election a choice between the two parties, crystallize the differences.”
Obama, she said, did that in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections “by winning over a lot of working-class white voters and others who we don’t always think of as part of the ‘Obama coalition.’
Obama left office in January 2017 with a 59% approval rating, and Gallup measured his post-presidential approval rating at 63% the following year, the last time the organization surveyed former presidents. That’s significantly higher than his ratings in 2010, when Democrats lost control of the House in a midterm election Obama called a “shellacking.” In its second midterm election four years later, the GOP regained control of the Senate.
Still, Bakari Sellers, a prominent Democratic commentator, said Obama’s broader popularity should not obscure how much his “special connection” with black and other non-white voters can help Democrats.
The Atlanta rally brought Obama together with Warnock, the first black U.S. senator in Georgia history, and Abrams, who is vying to become the first black female governor in U.S. history.
In Michigan, Obama will campaign in Detroit with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who is being challenged by Republican Tudor Dixon, and in Wisconsin, he will be in Milwaukee with Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, who is trying to unseat Republican Senator Ron Johnson. Each city is where the state’s black population is most concentrated. Obama’s Pennsylvania swing will include Philadelphia, another city where Democrats need strong turnout from black voters to win competitive Senate and governor races.
With the Senate now split 50-50 between the two major parties and Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the deciding vote, any Senate contest could end up deciding which party controls the chamber for the next two years. Among the tightest Senate seats, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are three where black turnout could be most critical to Democratic fortunes.
Axelrod said Obama’s turn from his own midterm struggles to being the Democrats’ leading surrogate is in part a rite of passage for any former president. “Most of them — maybe not President Trump, but most of them — are viewed more favorably after they leave office,” Axelrod said.
Especially during the Obama presidency, former President Bill Clinton was the heavyweight surrogate in demand, especially for moderates trying to survive Republican surges in 2010 and 2014.
Axelrod said Obama and Clinton have a similar approach.
“What Clinton and Obama share is a kind of unique ability to talk about complicated political arguments of the time, just talk in common sense terms,” Axelrod said. “They are storytellers.”