Former U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he campaigns on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee and his former Vice President Joe Biden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 21, 2020.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama delivered a rousing campaign speech on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, his first full-fledged drive-in rally event for Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris.
“I am asking you to remember what this country can be. What it is like when we treat each other with respect and dignity. What is it is like when our elected officials actually behave responsibly,” Obama said during an impassioned 30 minute speech at Lincoln Financial Field.
“I am 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,” he said.
Obama did not pull his punches, attacking his successor, President Donald Trump early in his speech over recent reports that the president has a previously unreported bank account in China.
“We know that he continues to do business with China, because he has got a secret Chinese bank account! How is that possible?” Obama said, incredulously. “Can you imagine if I had a secret Chinese bank account when I was running for reelection?”
The line was especially relevant given the Trump campaign’s monthslong effort to portray Biden as overly sympathetic to China, and his more recent effort to paint Biden as financial entangled with Chinese companies, despite no evidence of any financial relationships.
Trump also blames Beijing for the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 220,000 Americans this year. Obama, however, laid responsibility squarely on Trump’s shoulders for America’s outsized infection and death rates, among the highest in the developed world.
“Presidents up for reelection usually ask if the country is better off than it was four years ago. I will tell you one thing. Four years ago, you would be tailgating here at the Lincoln Field, instead of watching this speech from your cars,” said Obama, a reference to the drive-in rally that has become a feature of the Biden campaign during the pandemic.
Trump, meanwhile, continues to hold large, open air campaign rallies that pack thousands of people in close quarters with few masks or safety precautions. Below is a photo from Trump’s campaign rally in Sanford, Florida, on Oct. 12.
U.S. President Donald Trump throws a face mask from the stage during a campaign rally, his first since being treated for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Florida, October 12, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
“The only people who are truly better off than they were four years ago are the billionaires who got [Trump’s] tax-cuts,” Obama said, before launching a broadside against the president over reports that Trump paid just $750 a year in personal income tax for several years running.
The former president saved his most withering attacks for Trump’s character, and for Trump’s norm-shattering leadership style.
If Biden and Harris are elected, Obama said, “We are not going to have a president that goes out of the way to insult anybody who does not support him, or threatens them with jail.”
“That is not normal presidential behavior. We would not tolerate it from a high school principal. We would not tolerate it from a coach or a coworker…why are folks making excuses for that, ‘well, that’s just him.’ No! There are consequences to these actions,” he said.
Obama appeared to be genuinely enjoying himself on stage, occasionally chuckling at his lines before shifting back into his classic campaign speech tenor.
“Our democracy is not going to work if the people meant to be our leaders lie to us every single day,” he said. “These notions of truthfulness, and democracy, and citizenship, and being responsible, these aren’t Republican or Democratic principles … They are American values, human values. And we need to reclaim them.”
Earlier in the day, before Obama’s rally, the Trump campaign released a statement slamming Obama and Biden. “Joe Biden is clearly not up to the rigors of campaigning for president, so he’s calling in Barack Obama as a reinforcement,” the campaign said.
Biden spent the day preparing for his second and final debate with Trump on Thursday night.
The second half of Obama’s remarks was dedicated to rallying Democrats to turn out and vote. “We can’t just imagine a better future. We’ve got to fight for it. We’ve got to out-hustle the other side. We have to outwork the other side. We have to vote like never before.”
The president closed his speech with a throwback to his own two historic, and successful, presidential campaigns.
“Are you fired up? Are you ready to go? Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?” The crowd cheered and hundreds of cars honked at once. “Let’s go make it happen!” he said.
Obama has only delivered a few campaign-style speeches so far this year, wary of drawing attention away from Biden but also eager to avoid diluting his own powerful political brand by spreading himself too thinly.
With just 13 days to go before Election Day the Biden campaign has indicated that Obama will hold more rallies like Wednesday night’s before the campaign is over.
Obama’s argument against voter apathy is one he has made before, most notably at the funeral of the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis this past summer.
But delivered in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Obama’s words served as a stark reminder of one the Democratic Party’s most significant strategic failures in 2016: Its inability to prevent a voter shortfall in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that ultimately helped to deliver the state’s 20 electoral votes to Trump.
Trump won the Keystone State in 2016 by fewer than 45,000 votes, or less than three quarters of one percent. Post-election analysis showed a marked drop in turnout among black voters in and around Philadelphia, compared to the 2012 and 2008 elections, which Obama won.
Obama spoke as several new polls Wednesday showed Biden leading by anywhere from 2 points to 10 points in Pennsylvania, a state viewed as a must-win by both the Biden and Trump campaigns.
Pennsylvania is home to a diverse electorate, and Democratic candidates generally expect to do poorly in the state’s rural west, where voters predominantly support Republicans for Congress and for president.
The reason that Democratic presidential candidates were able to win Pennsylvania for two decades, until 2016, is because of the sheer number of Democratic voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which outweighed the total number of Republicans across other parts of the state.