'Trump isn't going to protect us': Obama returns to campaign trail for Biden

Lauren Gambino in Washington
·5-min read

Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail on Wednesday to deliver a scathing – and occasionally humorous – condemnation of his successor while envisioning an America led by his former vice-president, Joe Biden.

Sleeves rolled and wearing a black mask that read VOTE, Obama assailed Donald Trump over his response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans and infected millions more, including the president.

Related: Maryland man charged with making death threats against Biden and Harris

“Eight months into this pandemic, cases are rising again across this country” Obama said at a drive-in rally in Philadelphia less than two weeks before election day. “Donald Trump isn’t suddenly going to protect all of us. He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself.”

Declaring this “the most important election of our lifetime”, Obama pleaded with Americans to deliver Biden a victory so overwhelming that Trump cannot seriously dispute the result. “What we do now these next 13 days will matter for decades to come,” he said.

Obama, who swept to the White House on an optimistic message of “hope and change,” acknowledged that progress was not always a straight line. “The fact that we don’t get 100% of what we want right away is not a good reason not to vote,” he implored.

His visit to Pennsylvania, one of three traditionally Democratic Rust Belt states that he won twice and Trump won in 2016, underscored its significance this cycle. Both candidates have lavished the state with frequent visits and a blitz of advertising. Biden holds a narrow lead in Pennsylvania, according to a RealClearPolitics average of state polls.

Seizing on a comment Trump made during a rally in western Pennsylvania on Tuesday, when he told supporters that he would not have been there if his campaign wasn’t trailing, Obama smiled mischievously: “Poor guy. I don’t feel that way. I love coming to Pennsylvania.”

Waving away the polls and punditry that have shown Biden widening his lead in recent weeks, Obama urged Black men and young progressives not to sit out this cycle.

“I don’t care about the polls. There were a whole bunch of polls last time,” he said. “Didn’t work out because a whole bunch of folks stayed at home.”

Barack Obama speaks at a drive-in rally on Wednesday in Pennsylvania.
Barack Obama speaks at a drive-in rally on Wednesday in Pennsylvania. Photograph: Matt Slocum/AP

Democrats believe Black voter turnout could be decisive in states like Pennsylvania, where Hillary Clinton lost by less than 45,000 votes in 2016. That year, turnout among African American voters dropped nationwide.

Obama visited Philadelphia in August, when he delivered a sobering address at the virtual Democratic National Convention, in which he warned that the future of American democracy hung in the balance this election. Though similar in theme, the tone of his remarks on Wednesday was far more hopeful. Amid a steady stream of honking car horns, he asked the crowd to “remember what this country can be”.

The former president praised Biden – a “scrappy kid from Scranton” – who he said had the experience and temperament to lead a nation grappling with multiple crises. Contrasting the Democratic ticket with the current administration, Obama said Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, wouldn’t ignore public health experts, amplify conspiracy theories or stoke nativist fears.

“With Joe and Kamala at the helm, you’re not going to have to think about the crazy things they said every day,” Obama said. “And that’s worth a lot.”

Obama’s much-anticipated return to the campaign trail, delayed by the coronavirus, was the first of several public events he is expected to hold on behalf of Biden and Harris in twilight of the 2020 presidential campaign. After keeping a relatively low profile for much of his presidency – and frustrating supporters with a reluctance to denounce his successor – Obama was unsparing in his critique.

Mocking Trump’s obsession with his own TV ratings, Obama accused the former Apprentice star of treating the presidency like a “reality show”.

“But the thing is, this is not a reality show. This is reality,” he said. “And the rest of us have had to live with the consequences of him proving himself incapable of taking the job seriously.”

He also assailed Trump over revelations by the New York Times that the billionaire president paid just $750 in federal income tax in 2017 and maintains a bank account in China.

“Can you imagine if I had a secret Chinese bank account when I was running for re-election?” Obama asked, his voice straining. “You think Fox News might have been a little concerned about that? They would have called me Beijing Barry!”

He quipped that he likely paid more in federal taxes working his first job at Baskin-Robbins than Trump paid during the first year of his presidency.

Before the rally, Obama held a round table with Black elected officials and community organizers at a recreation center in north Philadelphia, where he urged residents, and especially African American men – to make their voices heard at the ballot box this cycle. The former president said he understood young people’s impulse toward apathy when progress is slow and change is incremental, particularly on issues as urgent as racial injustice.

“I’m very proud of my presidency, but I didn’t immediately solve systemic racism by virtue of me being president,” he told the 14 men gathered at the socially distanced event.

Likening voting to working out, Obama said no one expects to leave the gym after one session with a physique like The Rock. The same applied to voting, he said. One election doesn’t suddenly make “everything perfect,” he continued, but it will make “things better”.

Asked during the discussion whether he still found reason to be hopeful after the last four years, Obama said he did.

“I’ve been mad. I’ve been frustrated,” Obama told him. “But I haven’t lost hope.”