Obama delivers blazing critique of president in 2020 campaign trail debut
PHILADELPHIA - Former president Barack Obama delivered a lacerating critique of President Donald Trump in his debut on the 2020 campaign trail Wednesday, denouncing his successor's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and ridiculing him for being unable to even "protect himself" from covid-19.
Speaking at a drive-in rally for Joe Biden in South Philadelphia, Obama attacked Trump on a wide range of issues - including his personal tax payments, embrace of conspiracy theories, handling of the economy and efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act - as he implored Democrats to avoid complacency and turn out at the polls.
"We've got to turn out like never before. We cannot leave any doubt in this election," Obama said, warning that Trump has suggested he won't accept the results if he loses.
Though polls have showed Biden holding a steady lead in Pennsylvania, Obama cautioned: "I don't care about the polls. There were a bunch of polls last time, and it didn't work out. . . . Not this time. Not this election."
With less than two weeks left before Election Day, Obama's appearance in a state Trump won in 2016 highlighted the importance of Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes, which both campaigns have viewed as a must-win on a path to the White House. A day earlier, Trump delivered remarks at a rally in Erie, Pa., in one of three western counties that had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but backed Trump four years ago.
A little more than an hour after Obama spoke, Trump briefly went after his predecessor during a campaign rally in North Carolina, claiming it was "good news" that Obama is out on the campaign trail.
"It's good. There was nobody that campaigned harder for crooked Hillary Clinton than Obama, right?" Trump said. "He was all over the place. . . . I think the only one more unhappy than crooked Hillary that night was Barack Hussein Obama."
Obama has been an important surrogate for Biden, delivering a prime-time endorsement address during the Democratic National Convention in August, headlining virtual fundraisers and rallying supporters in get-out-the-vote video messages and other media appearances. In recent days, he joined vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris and the actor Michael B. Jordan in an online fundraiser.
But his debut at an in-person event aimed to deliver a jolt of excitement from the Democratic Party's top draw and most electrifying speaker to generate enthusiasm among the Democratic base, particularly minorities and young people. Obama appeared energized in his return to the spotlight, unleashing full-throated criticism over Trump's management of the country and his personal behavior.
"I get this president wants full credit for the economy he inherited and zero blame for the pandemic he ignored," Obama said, citing the more than 220,000 Americans who have died of the novel coronavirus. "But you know what? The job doesn't work that way. Tweeting at the television doesn't fix things. Making stuff up doesn't make people's lives better. You've got to have a plan."
The 44th president cited a nationwide rise in coronavirus cases, which have spiked to over 60,000 a day, and said that Trump "isn't going to suddenly protect all of us. He can't even take the basic steps to protect himself." By comparison, Obama added, Biden "is not going to screw up testing. He's not going to call scientists idiots. He's not going to hold a superspreader event at the White House."
Obama cited recent New York Times reports about the president's finances that revealed he had paid $750 in personal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and that he maintained a bank account in China while overseeing U.S. foreign policy.
"Can you imagine if I had a secret Chinese bank account when I was running for reelection?" Obama said. "You think Fox News might have been a little concerned about that? They would have called me 'Beijing Barry.' "
The format of the event, in which supporters remained in their vehicles to maintain social distancing, offered a stark reminder of the nation's health crisis. As Obama spoke, supporters could be heard cheering but also honking their horns in support.
The scene was a contrast to Trump's rallies, in which thousands of supporters huddle closely on airport tarmacs for the president's remarks. Many have eschewed masks, as Trump has denounced Democratic governors and mayors for maintaining pandemic restrictions on businesses.
Biden did not attend the event. The former vice president has hunkered down at his home in Wilmington, Del., and maintained a low public profile this week, with aides emphasizing that he is focused on preparing for his final debate with Trump on Thursday.
Ahead of the drive-in rally, Obama urged supporters to vote and avoid cynicism over the country's problems. He tied the recent social justice protests to the election, suggesting the passion that drove demonstrators would offer a bulwark against opponents who have tried to depress the vote.
Obama also met with 14 Black community members in North Philadelphia to discuss issues facing Black men, including poverty, unemployment and gun violence.
"Obama's ability to mobilize Democrats is rivaled by only one other person, and that would be Trump - Obama because he inspires us and tells us, 'Yes we can,' and Trump because he dares tell us we can't," said Pennsylvania state Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat, who participated in the meeting.
"Barack Obama's very presence will remind people of a time when America was working to better itself versus whatever this president is doing now."
Yet Obama's appearance in Philadelphia also served as a reminder that he was unable to help deliver the state for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. On the final day of that campaign, the two joined up in the city for a celebratory mega-rally featuring Bruce Springsteen in a state that Obama had carried comfortably in 2008 and 2012. The next day, Trump proved victorious on his way to the White House.
"If Obama couldn't carry Pennsylvania for Hillary, I have serious doubts about what he can do for Joe Biden," said Charlie Gerow, a GOP political strategist based in the state.
Polls have shown Biden with a solid lead for months. A Washington Post average of October polls shows Biden with an eight-point lead in the state, 52 percent to 44 percent.
But Biden aides have warned against complacency, and Obama addressed those fears at both of his events.
"I've never lost hope over these last four years," Obama told the group in North Philadelphia. "I've been mad. I've been frustrated, but I haven't lost hope, and the reason is because I never expected progress to move directly in a straight line."
In his address outside Lincoln Field, Obama took aim at the Trump administration's efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act, calling it "shameful."
"The idea of taking health care from people at the very moment where people need it most - what's the logic of that?" Obama asked. "There is no logic."
"I'm asking you to remember what this country can be," he said, "when we treat each other with respect and dignity."
Concluding his remarks, Obama repurposed one of his famous 2008 campaign slogans for the pandemic era.
"Honk if you're fired up," he told the audience in their cars. "Honk if you're ready to go."