ATLANTA (AP) — Barack Obama is trying to do something he couldn’t during two terms as president: Help Democrats succeed in national midterm elections while they already have the White House in their hands.
Of course, Obama is more popular than he was then, and now it’s President Joe Biden, his former vice president, facing the prospect of a November reprimand..
Obama will begin hopping through the battlefields in Georgia on Friday, traveling to Michigan and Wisconsin on Saturday, followed by stops next week in Nevada and Pennsylvania.
The route, which includes meetings with Democratic candidates for federal and state offices, comes as Biden and Democrats try to avert a strong Republican push to overthrow the narrow majority of Democrats in the House and Senate and claim key governorships for the 2024 presidential election.
Several thousand Georgia voters waited Friday afternoon in slow security lines near the Atlanta airport to join Obama’s rally alongside Senator Raphael Warnock, whose race against Republican Herschel Walker will help determine Senate control, and Stacey Abrams, challenging Governor Brian Kemp in a 2018 rematch.
With Biden’s track approval ratings in the low 40’s amid ongoing inflation, he is an albatross for Democrats like Warnock and fellow Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. But party strategists see Obama as wide-reaching, even at a time of partisanship and economic uncertainty.
“Obama occupies a rare place in our politics today,” said David Axelrod, who helped shape Obama’s campaigns from his days in the Illinois state Senate to two presidential elections. “Obviously, he has great appeal to Democrats. But he is also loved by independent voters.”
Neither Biden nor former President Donald Trump can claim that, Axelrod and others noted, though both men are also ramping up their campaign for the Nov. 8 election.
“Barack Obama is the best messenger we have in our party, and he is the most popular political figure in the country in both parties,” said Bakari Sellers, a South Carolina Democrat and prominent political commentator.
Obama left office in January 2017 with a 59% approval rating, and Gallup measured his post-presidential approval at 63% the following year, the last time the organization polled former presidents. That’s significantly higher than his ratings in 2010, when Democrats lost control of the House in a midterm election that Obama called a “shellacking.” In its second by-election, four years later, the GOP regained control of the Senate.
Swimming against those historic tides, Biden traveled to Syracuse, New York, on Thursday for a rare appearance in a competitive congressional district. After months of Republican attacks over inflation, he offered a closing economic argument: somewhat buoyed by news of 2.6% GDP growth in the third quarter after two previous quarters of withdrawal.
“Democrats are building a better America for everyone with an economy … where everyone is doing well,” Biden said.
But Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist, said Obama is better positioned to make that same argument to Americans who haven’t decided who to vote for, if at all.
“If it’s just an outright referendum on the Democrats and the economy, then we’re screwed,” Smith said, recognizing that no incumbent party wants to operate amid ongoing inflation. “But in the election you have to make a choice between the two parties, crystallize the differences.”
Obama, she said, did so in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections “by winning over many white working class voters and others that we don’t always think of as part of the ‘Obama Coalition’.”
He couldn’t repeat it in the meantime, but he’s not the president this time. Smith and Axelrod said this means Obama can more deftly position himself above the fray to defend Democratic achievements, given the specifics of the Inflation Reduction Act to the COVID-19 pandemic aid package that many Democrats have avoided touting because Republicans blame inflation. Smith said Obama can remind voters of years of Republican attacks on his 2010 health care bill that now appears to be a permanent and widely accepted part. of the US health insurance market.
These policy arguments aside, Sellers noted that as the first black president, Obama “mainly connects with black and brown voters,” a bond that was evident in the opening days of his itinerary.
The Atlanta meeting will bring Obama together with Warnock as the first black US senator in Georgia history, and Abrams, who aims to become the first black female governor in US history.
In Michigan, Obama will campaign in Detroit with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who is being challenged by Republican Tudor Dixon, and in Wisconsin, he will be in Milwaukee with Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, who is trying to oust Republican Senator Ron Johnson. The state’s black population is most concentrated in each city. Obama’s swing in Pennsylvania will include Philadelphia, another city where Democrats must get a strong turnout of black voters to win competitive races for the Senate and governor.
With the Senate now split 50-50 between the two major parties and Vice President Kamala Harris giving the Democrats the casting vote, any Senate contest can ultimately decide which party controls the chamber for the next two years. Among the Senate’s tightest battlefields, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, there are three where the rise of blacks can most determine Democratic fate.
Plans are in the works for Obama and Biden to campaign together in Pennsylvania, although neither the White House nor Obama’s office has confirmed details.
A wider embrace for Obama is a turning point from his two midterm elections. But it’s at least partly a rite of passage for former presidents. “Most of them — maybe not President Trump, but most of them — are viewed more favorably after they leave office,” Axelrod said.
Notably, during the Obama presidency, former President Bill Clinton was the in-demand surrogate heavyweight, especially for moderates trying to survive Republican peaks in 2010 and 2014. Clinton was a pivotal voice in Obama’s 2012 reelection effort, with Obama making him the “secretary of explaining things” after Clinton’s overwhelming support speech at the Democratic convention when Obama was locked in a tight battle with Republican Mitt Romney.
“Bill Clinton was the MVP for us in 2012,” said Axelrod.
Now Clinton is two decades away from the White House, and the #MeToo movement has forced some people to reevaluate its history of sexual misconduct allegations.
“It’s always been difficult to bring in National Democrats during an interim period, and it doesn’t help if they bring a lot of baggage,” Smith said of Clinton.
Axelrod was more cautious and simply said, “It’s a different time.”
But he said Obama and Clinton have a similar approach.
“What Clinton and Obama share is a kind of unique ability to get around complicated political arguments of the time, just talk in common sense,” Axelrod said. “They are storytellers. I think you’ll see that again when he gets there.’
Learn more about the issues and factors involved in the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP’s election coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.
This story has been corrected to show that Abrams, not Kemp, is trying to relieve the governor.