In closing campaign pitches, Democrats lean on their star: Obama
On Saturday, with just days left to campaign ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, three presidents converged on Pennsylvania in a last-ditch effort to lock down a must-win Senate race for their parties.
Both parties know that the race here could determine control of the upper chamber, and both deployed their biggest stars to make their closing pitch. In Philadelphia, President Biden and former President Obama rallied for the Democrats’ Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Across the state in Latrobe, former President Trump stumped for Fetterman’s opponent, the television personality Mehmet Oz.
Since Thursday, Biden has crisscrossed the nation to speak with voters in key states and congressional districts. In Philadelphia, he reminded voters of his administration’s achievements — billions in new infrastructure spending, a cap on the cost of prescription drugs for seniors, and student debt relief.
After Biden left the stage, Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, was due to speak. Shapiro is well ahead of his opponent, the Trump-endorsed state Sen. Doug Mastriano, in the polls. But the crowd at Temple University’s indoor basketball arena didn’t seem to want to hear from Shapiro: They chanted for Obama.
The chanters had to wait. After Shapiro spoke, Fetterman took the stage.
Polling suggests that the crowd’s instincts were right: Obama may be the Democrats’ not-so-secret weapon. He is vastly more popular than either Biden or Trump, and has been for some time; 53.8% of Americans view him favorably, according to YouGov.
Biden has shied away from states, including Georgia and Arizona, where his popularity lags and has instead gone to blue states where Democratic candidates find themselves in tight races. Obama, though, has stumped for three Senate candidates: Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin.
When he finally took the stage, Obama reminded the audience of several thousand supporters that midterms are often difficult for the party that controls the White House. But he asked the crowd to think about what might have happened if his party had kept control of the House in 2010 — or the Senate in 2014.
“Sometimes I can’t help but imagine what it would’ve been like if enough people had turned out in those elections,” Obama said, noting that Democrats could have advanced their agenda in multiple areas, such as immigration or climate change.
“If you vote, [Biden] can do even more,” Obama said. “But it depends on you.”
Obama acknowledged that he and his wife, Michelle, can get “discouraged” by American politics.
But he made a case for optimism. “There’s this thing that binds us together as Americans: a belief that no matter who we are, or where we come from, what we look like, who we love, what our last name is, how we worship — a belief that all of us matter,” he said. “The kind of slash-and-burn politics we’re seeing right now? That doesn’t have to be who we are. We can be better.”
Within the Democratic Party, Obama is a bigger celebrity than Biden, one rallygoer, John Johnson Jr., told The Times. Obama’s election represented a moment of change many believed would never come because Americans of color who had endured systemic racism were able to cast their ballots for the first Black president, the 29-year-old said.
That moment is “still very well present with us,” the pharmacy technician added. “He’s very much a celebrity for what he represents.
“He was a wonderful president. So that also helps too.”
Obama was left to try to inspire the rally crowd in part because Biden, Shapiro and Fetterman had already done the work of attacking the GOP. In his own speech Saturday, Biden didn’t just defend his agenda — he attacked Republicans’ plans. Despite the youthful audience, he turned to a tried-and-true Democratic campaign tactic: warning voters that Republicans aim to cut their Social Security and Medicare benefits.
“Elect John Fetterman to the Senate, please,” Biden said. “He will protect Social Security and Medicare and guarantee that veterans are always cared for.”
Biden also criticized Republicans’ efforts to restrict or eliminate abortion rights.
“Overturning Roe wasn’t the end for them, it was just the beginning,” Biden said, referring to a nascent Republican effort to pass a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks of gestation.
Democrats have an uphill battle to climb on Tuesday — incumbent presidents’ parties historically lose congressional seats during midterm elections. Voter concern about high inflation and the risk of recession has made the party’s task even more difficult. But while polling suggests Republicans are likely to take the House, Senate races in key states such as Pennsylvania — and control of the upper chamber — remain a toss-up.
The race between Fetterman and Oz has tightened in recent weeks. Oz had trailed well behind Fetterman, who used provocative memes to mock the celebrity doctor. But the polling gap has narrowed amid scrutiny of the Democrat’s health. During a debate last month, Fetterman, who is still dealing with lingering symptoms of a stroke, struggled to express his positions on key issues.
Oz has tried painting himself as a moderate alternative to Fetterman, whom he has accused of being too progressive for Pennsylvania. But Fetterman has relentlessly hammered Oz for his policies too. And for being a recent transplant from New Jersey — an attack Biden echoed Saturday.
“I’ve lived in Pennsylvania longer than Oz has lived in Pennsylvania, and I moved away when I was 10 years old,” Biden said.
As the Democrats wrapped up their rally in Philadelphia, Trump’s plane was preparing to land at an airstrip on the other side of the state, near Pittsburgh. Thousands had gathered to listen to Mastriano, Oz and other Republicans paint a picture of a crime- and drug-ridden America.
“Families won’t let their kids to go out to the mailboxes these days because they find fentanyl in the mailbox,” Oz had warned, slamming Fetterman as a liberal who wants to raise taxes and release criminals onto the streets.
After Oz finished his six-minute speech, the Trump rally attendees milled about for an hour, waiting for the former president to land. As his plane touched down, the crowd erupted in cheers, and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” played over the loudspeakers.
Trump, 76, is reportedly preparing to announce another White House run later this month. Biden, 79, has said he expects to run for a second term, making a Biden-Trump rematch all but certain.
Unfortunately for Democrats, Obama, 61, is ineligible to run again.
Times staff writer Freddy Brewster contributed to this report.
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