In closing campaign pitches, Democrats lean on their star: Obama

On Saturday, with just days left to campaign before Tuesday’s midterm elections, three presidents converged on Pennsylvania to try at the last minute to thwart a Senate race their parties are desperate to win.

Both parties know that racing here could determine control of the upper chamber and both used their biggest stars to reach their finishing spot. In Philadelphia, President Biden and former President Obama rallied for Democratic Senate nominee Lt. gov. John Fetterman. Across state in Latrobe, former President Trump stumbled upon Fetterman’s opponent, television personality Mehmet Oz.

Since Thursday, Biden has criss-crossed the nation speaking to voters in key states and congressional districts. In Philadelphia, he reminded voters of his administration’s accomplishments — spending billions on new infrastructure, a prescription drug cost cap for seniors, and debt relief for students.

After Biden left the stage, Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania governor, was scheduled to speak. Shapiro is well ahead of his opponent, Trump-backed Senator Doug Mastriano, in the polls. But the crowd at Temple University’s basketball hall didn’t seem to want to hear Shapiro: they were singing for Obama.

The singers had to wait. After Shapiro spoke, Fetterman took the stage.

But polls suggest the crowd’s instincts were right: Obama could be the Democrats’ not-so-secret weapon.

Obama is far more popular than Biden or Trump, and has been for some time; According to YouGov, 53.8% of Americans view him positively. In the latest edition of YouGov’s weekly tracking poll, 41.3% of Americans viewed Trump positively. That number was 44.8% for Biden.

Biden has retreated from states like Georgia and Arizona, where his popularity lags, and has instead gone to blue states where Democratic candidates are in tight races. However, Obama has failed for three Senate nominees: 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 an audience of several thousand supporters that midterm elections are often difficult for the party that controls the White House.

But he urged the crowd to consider what would have happened if his party had retained control of the House of Representatives in 2010 — or the Senate in 2014.

“Sometimes I can’t help but imagine what it would have been like if enough people had voted in these elections,” Obama said, noting that the Democrats could have advanced their agenda in several areas, perhaps even reforming the immigration system the nation or do more to fight climate change.

“If you choose [Biden] can do more,” Obama said. “But that depends on you.”

Obama acknowledged that he and his wife Michelle could become “disheartened” by American politics.

But as so often in his election campaigns, he pleaded for optimism. “There’s this thing that binds us together as Americans: a belief that it doesn’t matter who we are or where we’re from, what we look like, who we love, what our last name is, how we worship — a belief that all we matter,” he said. “The kind of slash-and-burn policies we’re seeing right now? We don’t have to be. We can be better.”

Within the Democratic Party, Obama is a bigger celebrity than Biden, a rally attendee, John Johnson Jr., told The Times. Obama’s election represented a moment of change that many believed would never come because Americans of color who have endured systemic racism were able to cast their vote for the first black president, the 29-year-old said.

This moment is “still very much present with us,” added the pharmacist. “He’s a huge celebrity for what he represents.

“He was a wonderful President. So that helps too.”

Obama had 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 on Saturday, Biden not only defended his agenda — he attacked Republican plans. Despite the youthful audience, he turned to a tried-and-tested Democratic campaign tactic: He warned voters that Republicans aim to cut their Social Security and Medicare benefits.

“Please elect John Fetterman to the Senate,” Biden said. “He will protect Social Security and Medicare and guarantee that veterans will always be taken care of.”

Biden also criticized Republican efforts to limit or abolish abortion rights.

“The fall of Roe wasn’t the end for her, it was just the beginning,” Biden said, referring to an emerging Republican effort led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) to pass a national post-15 abortion ban weeks of pregnancy.

Democrats face an uphill battle Tuesday — the incumbent’s parties historically lose congressional seats during the midterm elections. Voters’ concerns about high inflation and the risk of recession have made the party’s task even more difficult. But while polls suggest Republicans are likely to take the House of Representatives, Senate races in key states, including Pennsylvania, have kept control of the upper house in a split.

The race between Fetterman and Oz has intensified in recent weeks. For most of the race, Oz trailed behind Fetterman, who routinely used provocative memes to poke fun at the famous doctor. But after a debate last month, when Fetterman, who is still dealing with lingering symptoms of a stroke, struggled to voice his positions on important issues, the disagreement between the two narrowed. Oz has tried to present himself as a moderate alternative to Fetterman, whom he accuses of being too progressive for Pennsylvania. But Fetterman has also hammered Oz relentlessly for his politics. And for being a recent transplant from New Jersey — an attack Biden repeated on Saturday.

“I’ve lived in Pennsylvania longer than Oz has lived in Pennsylvania, and I moved away when I was 10,” Biden said.

As Democrats wrapped up their rally in Philadelphia, Trump’s plane was preparing to land on an airstrip across 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 these days don’t let their kids go to the mailbox because they find fentanyl in the mailbox,” Oz warned, calling Fetterman a liberal who wants to raise taxes and let criminals onto the streets.

After Oz finished his six-minute speech, Trump rally participants milled around for an hour waiting for the former president to land. As his plane landed, the crowd erupted in cheers and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” blared through the speakers.

Trump, 76, is reportedly preparing to announce his presidential candidacy later this month. Biden, 79, has said he expects to run for a second term, making a rematch between Biden and Trump all but certain.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, Obama, 61, cannot run again.

Times writer Freddy Brewster contributed to this report. In closing campaign pitches, Democrats lean on their star: Obama

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