Barack Obama is trying to do something he couldn’t during his own two terms as United States president: help his Democratic Party win midterm elections when they already hold the White House.
Obama is more popular than he was back then, and now it’s President Joe Biden, his former vice president, who faces the prospects of a November rebuke.
Obama begins a hopscotch across battleground states on Friday in Georgia, and he will travel on Saturday to Michigan and Wisconsin, followed by stops next week in Nevada and Pennsylvania.
The itinerary, which includes rallies with Democratic candidates for federal and state offices, was drawn up as Biden and his party try to stave off a strong Republican push to upend the Democrats’ narrow majorities in the House and Senate and claim key governorships ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Four states have competitive Senate races where Republican candidates appear to be gaining momentum. Michigan has a competitive governor’s race.
Republicans need to pick up just one additional Senate seat to secure control of that chamber, and Georgia and Nevada are their prime targets.
Republicans are expected to win enough seats to take over the House of Representatives. Holding both chambers would enable them to stonewall Biden’s agenda; block his nominees, including federal judges; and launch investigations of his administration.
With Biden’s approval among voters hovering at 39 percent, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, it is Obama who is assuming the role as the party’s closer in the final days of campaigning ahead of the November 8 elections.
“He’s probably a better ambassador for swing-state Democrats than Biden is since he’s more popular – especially in the competitive states – and less tied to the current issues on voters’ minds,” Jacob Rubashkin, an election analyst in Washington with Inside Elections, told the Reuters news agency. “He’s also a more natural campaigner.”
Biden’s low job approval ratings make him an albatross for Democrats like Senators Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. Party strategists see Obama as having extensive reach even in a time of hyperpartisanship and economic uncertainty.
“Obama occupies a rare place in our politics today,” David Axelrod told the Associated Press. He helped shape Obama’s campaigns from his days in the Illinois state Senate through two presidential elections. “He obviously has great appeal to Democrats, but he’s also well-liked by independent voters.”
Neither Biden nor former President Donald Trump can claim that, Axelrod and others noted, even as both men also ratchet up their campaigning ahead of the elections.
“Barack Obama is the best messenger we’ve got in our party, and he’s the most popular political figure in the country in either party,” Bakari Sellers, a South Carolina Democrat and prominent political commentator, told AP.
Obama left office in January 2017 with a 59 percent approval rating, and Gallup measured his post-presidential approval at 63 percent the following year, the last time the organization surveyed former presidents. That’s considerably higher than his ratings in 2010 when Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in a midterm election that Obama called a “shellacking”. In his second midterm election four years later, the GOP also regained control of the Senate.
Trying to swim against those historical tides, Biden travelled on Thursday to Syracuse, New York, for a rare appearance in a competitive congressional district. After months of Republican attacks over inflation, he offered a closing economic argument buoyed somewhat by news of 2.6 percent GDP growth in the third quarter after two previous quarters of retraction.
“Democrats are building a better America for everyone with an economy … where everyone does well,” Biden argued.
Yet Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist, said Obama is better positioned to take that same argument to Americans who haven’t decided whom to vote for or whether to vote at all.
“If it’s just a straight-up referendum on Democrats and the economy, then we’re screwed,” Smith said to AP, acknowledging that no incumbent party wants to run at a time of sustained inflation. “But you have to make the election a choice between the two parties, crystallize the differences.”
Obama, she said, did that in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections “by winning over a lot of working-class white voters and others we don’t always think about as part of the ‘Obama coalition’”.
He couldn’t replicate it in the midterms, but he’s not the president this time. Smith and Axelrod said that means Obama can more deftly position himself above the fray to defend Democratic accomplishments, from the specifics of the Inflation Reduction Act to the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic relief package that many Democrats have avoided touting because Republicans blame it for inflation. Smith said Obama can remind voters of years of Republican attacks on his 2010 health care law that now seems to be a permanent and generally accepted part of the US health insurance market.
Beyond those policy arguments, Sellers noted that Obama, as the first Black president, “connects especially with Black and brown voters”, a bond reflected in the opening days of his itinerary.
In Atlanta, he’ll be on stage with Warnock, the first Black US senator in Georgia’s history, and Stacey Abrams, who’s running to become the first Black female governor in American history. Warnock faces a stiff challenge from Republican nominee Herschel Walker, who is also Black. Abrams is trying to unseat Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated her four years ago.
In Michigan, Obama will campaign in Detroit with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who is being challenged by Republican Tudor Dixon, and in Wisconsin, he’ll be in Milwaukee with Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, who is trying to oust Republican Senator Ron Johnson. Each city is where the state’s Black population is most concentrated. Obama’s Pennsylvania swing will include Philadelphia, another city where Democrats must get a strong turnout from Black voters to win competitive races for Senate and governor.
With the Senate now split 50-50 between the two major parties and Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the deciding vote, any Senate contest could end up deciding which party controls the chamber for the next two years. Among the tightest Senate battlegrounds, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are three where Black turnout could be the most critical to Democratic fortunes.
Plans have been 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 turnabout 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.