Former U.S. President Barack Obama made his first in-person campaign pitch Wednesday for his former vice-president, Joe Biden, urging voters in Philadelphia — especially Black men — not to sit out the election and risk reelecting President Donald Trump.
“The pandemic would have been tough for any president,” Obama said at an afternoon roundtable with 14 Black men. But he asked the group to consider “the degree of incompetence and misinformation, the number of people who might not have died had we just done the basics.”
Obama presented Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, as ready to confront the coronavirus pandemic. Obama was slated to address a drive-in rally later Wednesday.
“I am so confident in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris surrounding themselves with people who are serious, who know what they’re doing, who are representative of all people — not just some people — and us being able to then dig ourselves out of this hole,” Obama said.
The significance of the roundtable was difficult to miss: The nation’s first Black president urged Black men especially not to give into apathy. The host city, Philadelphia, is among the Democratic bastions in battleground states where Black turnout four years ago fell off from Obama’s 2012 reelection in large enough numbers to flip key states to Trump’s column and deliver him the presidency.
Obama, 59, said he understood young voters’ skepticism and disinterest, recalling his own attitude decades ago. “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.
“The answer for young people when I talk to them is not that voting makes everything perfect,” Obama said. “It’s that it makes things better” because politicians respond to and reflect the citizens who cast votes.
“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.”
Four years ago, Obama delivered Hillary Clinton’s closing argument in the same city — at a rally for thousands the night before Election Day on Independence Mall. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic upending campaigning, far fewer voters will see the former president in person.
The format reflects the challenge Democrats face in boosting enthusiasm and getting out the vote in a year when they’ve eschewed big rallies in favour of small, socially distanced events, drawing a contrast with Trump and Republicans on the coronavirus.
Despite the smaller scale, Democrats say that as one of the men who knows Biden best, both as his former partner in the White House and personally, Obama remains one of the party’s greatest assets in the final stretch of the campaign.
“Especially in Philadelphia, he is the ultimate draw and still a great standard-bearer for Democrats,” said former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
Obama’s visit to Philadelphia underscores the significance of Pennsylvania, the swing state that Biden himself has visited the most this campaign season. Trump has prioritized the state, as well, recognizing how narrow his path to victory would be without it.
Obama has already been helpful to the Biden campaign, adapting to the shift to virtual events by focusing much of his work on getting younger Americans to vote. He’s appeared on Twitch, the video game streaming platform, pushed a voter registration message on Snapchat and recorded a video for the Shade Room, a Black-owned Instagram page and media company with 21 million followers.
Obama has appeared on two podcasts run by some of his former aides and has lent his name to texts and emails encouraging supporters to register to vote and donate money to the campaign. Obama has also been a big money draw for the campaign — he appeared at two virtual fundraisers with Harris this month and a handful prior to that. A grassroots virtual fundraiser Obama headlined with Biden in June brought in $7.6 million.
Obama has also been active for down-ballot Democrats, raising money for House Democrats and appearing in ads for some of the party’s top candidates, like Sara Gideon, running for the Senate in Maine, and for vulnerable incumbents, like Michigan Sen. Gary Peters. And he filmed a series of digital videos for the Democratic National Committee emphasizing the need for voters to make plans for casting their ballot.
“He’s doing enough for our campaign,” Biden told reporters before boarding a flight in New Castle, Delaware, last week. “He’ll be out on the trail, and he’s doing well.”
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.
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