COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — Former president Barack Obama kicked off his return to the campaign trail by taking on Georgia football icon and Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker.
“Georgia deserves better,” Obama said.
With midterm elections just over a week away, Obama, 61, has stepped into the spotlight on the political stage with rallies to gin up interest in marquee midterm races in battleground states.
A day after appearing in Georgia with Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, who is in a tight race with Walker, and Stacey Abrams, who is trailing in her rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp, Obama headlined rallies in Michigan and Wisconsin.
The former president is regarded as the Democratic Party’s top communicator to base voters, more in demand than President Biden, who has not been the sought-after surrogate in the top races amid a dismal approval rating. The president spent one of the busiest campaign weekends of the cycle at his home in Delaware, where he attended his granddaughter’s field hockey game and, separately, cast his ballot.
Democratic strategists say Obama is the sole party leader able to draw major base-motivating crowds without simultaneously angering the other side.
Obama took the stage on Saturday in Detroit, where he continued to use his signature withering humor, comparing Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon to a fictional plumber spewing conspiracy theories about “lizard people.”
And in Wisconsin, Obama called out some of the GOP television ads that portray state Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black, as someone who is “different.”
“Mandela, get ready to dig up that birth certificate,” Obama quipped, a reference to the conspiracy theory pushed by former president Donald Trump that Obama was not really born in the United States.
But he also argued that democracy is on the ballot and offered a pitch for his party as being more serious about solutions to the issues that voters are concerned about, including abortion rights, inflation and crime.
Obama, who left office in 2017, is raising his profile at a complicated time, with polls showing Democrats losing momentum in the midterms. And political tensions rose significantly over the past few days with increased anxiety after the violent attack against Paul Pelosi by an assailant who was looking for his wife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In Georgia, Obama walked onstage just hours after the attack. “I want to take a moment just to say a prayer for a friend of mine, Mr. Paul Pelosi,” Obama said.
He also talked about the attack in Michigan on Saturday. “One thing that we can feel, we know, if our rhetoric about each other gets that mean … that creates a dangerous climate,” Obama said.
But even as he spoke of civility in Michigan, Obama was heckled, prompting some in the crowd to chant “O-BA-MA.” The former president struggled for about two minutes to calm the crowd. “Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Obama said. “Hold up. Hold up. Hold up. Hold up.”
Later, Obama acknowledged that the political environment has gotten more difficult. Being on the campaign trail, he said, “feels a little harder than it used to — not just because I’m older and grayer,” Obama said. “It feels like that basic foundation of the democracy is at risk. … Things won’t be okay on their own.”
“Obama has the ability to talk at the same time to base Dems the party needs to mobilize and suburban swing voters they need to persuade in these closing days,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist in the White House.
“Like Clinton, Obama is also great at telling a larger story about the country, the times and the choice,” Axelrod said, referring to former president Bill Clinton, who has been noticeably absent from the campaign trail, as has his wife, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Republicans said it was a sign of weakness that the Democrats’ big closer this year is a president from the past rather than a potential future leader.
“Never look backwards in politics,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor. “It’s a sign that you’ve got a weak bench and no vision for the future. Bringing in Obama to make the closing argument for Democrats is acknowledgment that the party is rudderless under Joe Biden. It’s not a strong move.”
On the GOP side, Trump, who might again seek the White House, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have drawn big crowds.
Obama’s message to voters hits the same topics as the one coming from the current White House. It’s delivered with the former president’s unique mixture of folksy relatability and he makes a point of acknowledging challenges faced by voters as they confront difficult issues.
Abortion is “controversial” Obama said in Georgia on Friday, adding that “I genuinely believe there are people of good conscience who may differ from me on this issue.”
Inflation “is a real problem right now,” Obama said, though he points out that it’s a global one stemming from the pandemic and snarled supply chains. In Michigan, he added: “Sometimes we don’t want to talk about certain issues.”
And violent crime “has gone up,” the former president acknowledges, though he points out that the trend stretches over Democratic and Republican administrations and in red and blue states.
“Who actually voted against more resources for our police departments?” Obama asked. “Is it somebody who carries around a phony badge and says he’s in law enforcement?” he quipped, referring to an honorary sheriff’s badge that Walker flashed during a debate to demonstrate his tightness with law enforcement.
Walker, reacting to Obama’s comments that the former professional football player is a “celebrity” who has not put in the work to become a political leader, reportedly told reporters: “I’m not a celebrity, I’m a warrior for God.”
Dixon dismissed Obama’s Michigan appearance as “a last-minute fly in” that would do little to “erase all the lies and broken promises” of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has a slight lead in the polls heading into the final days of her reelection bid.
If there was a complaint from Democrats, it was that Obama didn’t hit the trail soon enough.
“In my humble opinion, they should have done this about a month ago, because it would have created more momentum,” said Carol Lewandowski, a retired nurse, waiting for Obama to speak in Detroit.
The clamor for Obama on the trail is a switch from 2010 — the first midterms of his presidency. It was Biden, his vice president, in demand and traveling to districts where Obama himself wasn’t desired.
In Georgia, audience members brought chairs and waited hours before he spoke to secure good seats, wearing 2008 era T-shirts that featured Obama’s likeness and swapping stories in line about seeing his inaugural speech in the cold.
“He proved once again that he’s the leader of the party spiritually, mentally, I mean, he’s just the greatest speech deliver of our lifetimes,” said Michael Tropp, 43, of Atlanta, after Obama spoke. “They bring out the big guns, they bring out President Barack Obama when they need him the most.”
“Some of this is a function of being an ex-president rather than a sitting president, on the receiving end of all the incoming [criticism] in midterm elections,” Axelrod said.
And after leaving the stage in Georgia on Friday night, Obama FaceTimed Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat running to be mayor of Los Angeles. And after his Michigan address, he headed to Wisconsin and stumped for the Democratic ticket there, where Barnes is in a tight race and Gov. Tony Evers is seeking reelection.
On Tuesday, Obama is scheduled to go to Nevada, where Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto and Gov. Steve Sisolak, both Democrats, face challenging reelections. His team says that more travel is planned. Obama, through a spokeswoman, declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
A major part of his message is pushing Democrats to vote. Obama gave an interview on “Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli,” casually known as the “ManningCast,” that drove about 10,000 views to a website that features information about voting, according to data from Obama’s office. Obama had more than 10 million views to a separate video aimed at engaging young voters.
He sat down last week with a group of Tik Tok influencers who are expected to be rolling out the Obama content in coming days, and he’s penned emails on behalf of lesser known Democratic committees including the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Obama’s also appearing in a slew of campaign commercials for Democrats, including ones airing in a number of gubernatorial contests, including in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Maryland. Obama’s team says there are more coming.
Remarkably, some Republicans running in traditionally blue states have also invoked his name in paid advertising during the general election season in a positive light.
Alek Skarlatos, a Republican running in a competitive Oregon House seat, highlights his connection to Obama in two ads. “Praised by Obama. Skarlatos will bring balance to Washington,” says a narrator in one, while another add notes that he was “praised by Obama for his service.” An Obama spokeswoman has called the ads “misleading.”
Obama has offered some hints about his plans in recent interviews. Speaking to Pod Save America, a program hosted by his former aides, he said he wants to play a role of mentor to the next generation of Democratic leaders.
“One of the things that I’m hoping to do over the next several years is in between elections maybe bring together some of this talent and see how I can lift them up and support them,” Obama said in the interview.
And though he’s warned about the divisiveness of social media, he noted his own following on Twitter. “Turns out I still have, like, a lot of Twitter followers,” Obama said. “And that’s more than some people, although I don’t really talk about it all the time.”
Obama has 133.4 million followers on the social media platform. Trump, before he was banned, had 88 million.
Dylan Wells contributed from Detroit.