Obama campaigns for his former vice president in Philadelphia, but can he push Biden over the finish line?

Alex Woodward
·8 min read
Former President Barack Obama speaks at Citizens Bank Park as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden in Philadelphia on 21 October. (AP)
Former President Barack Obama speaks at Citizens Bank Park as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden in Philadelphia on 21 October. (AP)

Consuela Taylor drove her son’s pizza delivery car into Philadelphia from neighbouring Delaware County to see Barack Obama.

“He means hope to me,” said Ms Taylor, holding back tears outside a parking lot near Citizens Bank Park, where the former president headlined a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. “I don’t know what he means to other people, but he means hope to me.”

Her son’s electric blue sedan was among hundreds of cars that queued along Broad Street in South Philadelphia on 21 October, as Donald Trump’s predecessor made a series of in-person public appearances – his first during 2020 elections – to urge voters to support his former vice president, flipping the dynamic in their storied and sentimentalised relationship.

With less than two weeks to Election Day, Democrats have mobilised Mr Obama as the party’s most powerful orator and as a critical, home-stretch endorsement in the former vice president’s first home, a crucial battleground state that Mr Biden and running mate Kamala Harris intend to flip.

His appearances offered some nostalgic catharsis for Democrats overwhelmed by the current administration, but rally attendees – including local party officials, labour leaders, volunteers, lawmakers and supporters – were reminded that the candidate on the 2020 ballot intends to carry his legacy.

Mr Obama returned to the same city where, as president, he delivered an energised and hopeful Election Day eve speech on 7 November for then-candidate Hillary Clinton. Four years later, during the summer’s Democratic National Committee, he returned to the city to deliver a sober rebuke of her opponent’s first term, with a warning for the future.

On his return visit on 21 October, he injected his trademark enthusiasm and optimism that has coloured his legacy among Democrats across a series of visits – at a community roundtable, to a group of volunteers, and in front of hundreds of supporters during an evening “drive-thru” rally.

His visit also carried echoes of 2008 and previous campaigns – old foe Donald Trump, who promoted a baseless, racist “birther” conspiracy, later became the first Republican to carry the state since 1988, and has spent his time in office demonising his predecessor and his vice president, now his opponent.

Swing state voters are often bombarded with campaign mailers, phone calls, texts and other adverts, while their lengthy ballots with critical local elections are often overwhelmed by intense national scrutiny over the presidential race.

In reliably Democratic Philadelphia, massive red billboards over South Philly tell drivers to vote in large white letters, and VOTE BIDEN 2020 placards line telephone poles from one end of Broad Street to the city’s historic centre.

But still peeking from house windows and on car bumpers are faded Obama-Biden signs and peeling campaign stickers from more than 12 years ago.

With Senator Harris alongside him, Mr Biden’s campaign sought to recreate the Obama-Biden dynamic in his choice of running mate, rekindling a relationship that has been mythologised among supporters.

“I know that he supports Joe, and I know he’s going to support Joe, and he’s going to continue supporting Joe,” Ms Taylor said. “Just because he’s not our president currently, he’s still going to be helpful to the United States.”

‘There is an energy out there’

Mr Obama arrived in Philadelphia on the heels of the president’s campaign swing into three counties he won in 2016 that Mr Obama himself carried in 2012.

During a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, the president said: “If we win Pennsylvania, we win the whole thing.”

Last week in Georgia, he said: “They said, ‘Sir, we have bad news.’ ‘What’s the bad news? ‘Obama’s going to start campaigning for Sleepy Joe.’ I said, ‘Is that good or bad? Why is it bad?’ Because he campaigned harder for Hillary than she did. He was very ineffective as a campaigner.”

Republicans have pointed to a sprawling voter outreach operation in the state, hosting massive rallies with thousands of people and closing the voter registration gap between Democrats in the state to its slimmest margin in decades.

But the GOP and the president’s campaign lost a recent effort to diminish Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting plans, with early voting turnouts exceeding previous years.

State election officials have reported an unprecedented surge in mail-in voting and early voter turnout, though it’s still unclear whether the surge in voting points to a larger overall turnout or a share of voters who won’t be voting in person on Election Day.

Democrats requested roughly 1.8 million mail ballots as of Tuesday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. That’s 64 per cent of the 2.8 million requested in total.

Counties printed and mailed 2.77 million ballots, and nearly 37 per cent of those have been returned.

“There is an energy out there,” said state Senator Sharif Street, vice-chair of the state’s Democratic Party. “There is a resilience that Pennsylvanians have to vote, and I think the president’s challenge to people’s right to vote by attacking vote-by-mail only emboldened people to want to vote more.”

Senator Street, son of Philadelphia’s second Black mayor, helped secure the recent victory for Pennsylvania voters, as the US Supreme Court declined to block a state court ruling allowing mail-in ballots to be counted as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day and arrive no later than three days later.

“We need to do what we can to make sure to vote – to stop the collapse, Donald Trump’s destruction of everything every person has built,” Senator Street told The Independent. “His governance has been that bad. … President Obama reminds us of how we do it right.”

Facing a fractured dairy industry and farmers devastated by tariffs, throughout a public health crisis that has caused the death of at least 8,600 Pennsylvanians, the return of Mr Obama to Philadelphia resonates across the state’s 67 counties, Senator Street said.

“It’s not just ‘urban people’ and Black people, progressives and members of the LGBT+ community and Latinos and Asians – it’s rural Pennsylvania, it’s rural households, it’s people who understand that Barack Obama and Joe Biden know how to get things done,” Senator Street said. “Barack Obama reminds us as a country we know how to solve big problems. We didn’t just pretend they didn’t exist while we watched people die.”

A caravan of labour unions – including members of Service Employees International, steelworkers and carpenters – rode into the Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

They were among a diverse cross-section of Democratic supporters, reflecting the broad “coalition” that was central to Mr Obama’s 2008 victory.

Members of the Pennsylvania Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders for Biden group spilled out of a van to hold up signs for the candidate. Philadelphia residents Chris McCollum and John Thomas Apdling also rode with LGBT+ for Biden signs.

James Hocker and Victor Szwanski, representing the Philadelphia Carpenters Union, carried a large BIDEN HARRIS sign in the bed of a truck.

Dave McLimans, a retired steelworker from Chester County, slapped a “steelworkers for Joe” magnet to the side of his white truck. He has been canvassing and “knocking on doors all over” for the candidate, he said.

“We need to win it, at all costs,” he told The Independent.

Mr McLimans, a veteran of the Vietnam War, underscored his support for Mr Biden with his disgust for the current president, following allegations that he had called members of the military “losers.”

“Screw him,” he said. “We don’t need him to win.”

‘Get the job done’

After avoiding directly confronting the sitting president over the last several years, Mr Obama has amplified his criticisms in recent months following the public health crisis and a refusal to confront racial justice.

"I never thought Donald Trump would embrace my vision or continue my policies, but I did hope for the sake of the country, that he might show some interest in taking the job seriously," Mr Obama told the rally crowd.

"But it hasn't happened,” he said. “He hasn't showed any interest in doing the work or helping anybody but himself and his friends."

Earlier on Wednesday, he joined a roundtable at the Hank Gathers Youth Access Center, urging young Black men to vote and assessing his campaign of “hope” against its current realities.

"With my election, I think we had probably gotten over-optimistic about how much change had happened in the country,” he said. "But that change was real. There was some pushback. And that was real, too."

At the rally, he told supporters: “The fact that we don't get 100 per cent of what we want right away is not a good reason to vote. It means we got to vote, then get some change, and then vote some more, and then get some more change, and then keep on voting until we get it right."

At-times light-hearted, others grave and candid, his speech was the first of several planned over the next several days as millions of Americans head to the polls, joining the 40 million others who have already cast their ballots.

In a video message on Tuesday, he spoke directly to young voters, embracing his signature hopeful enthusiasm to encourage them to vote for Mr Biden.

“I know Joe better than almost anybody,” he said. I trust him to be a great president. … He’s on the right side of the issues. … Joe and Kamala would want you to keep pushing them to get the job done.”

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