WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, who burst into national politics with a memorable convention speech in 2004, will use remarks Wednesday to slam a “cynical” effort by his successor to limit mail-in voting and will argue that the nation’s democracy itself is on the line in the November presidential election.
Obama’s highly anticipated address, to be delivered live on the third night of the Democratic party’s virtual convention, will outline why Biden possesses “the experience and character” to lead the country through dueling economic and public health crises that he will argue “the current administration has blundered into,” an aide said.
“President Obama will highlight the cynical moves by the current administration and the Republican Party to discourage Americans from voting,” Obama spokeswoman Katie Hill said, referring to President Donald Trump’s criticism of states that are expanding vote-by-mail in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “He’ll make a pointed case that democracy itself is on the line – along with the chance to create a better version of it.”
Obama will speak to the pared-down convention in the 10 p.m. ET hour Wednesday, two nights after former first lady Michelle Obama. Party insiders hope that the former president – among the most popular politicos in America – will fill the role of validator-in-chief for his former No. 2, reassuring voters that Biden will usher in a sense of “normalcy” after four years of Trump.
“Right now President Obama’s role, primarily, is to remind Americans what a stable and thoughtful administration looks like,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky.
Obama is, of course, no stranger to the format and venue. He arrived on the same stage in 2004 as fresh-faced Senate candidate from Illinois who delivered one of that convention’s more memorable speeches.
The event established him as one of the nation’s great orators and helped catapult him to the White House four years later. But he now faces a different task: Holding together a leftward lurching Democratic Party while selling the country on the stability of a Biden presidency at a time of national crisis.
He also has to be careful to not give Trump any ammunition, Democrats said.
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“The first thing in this convention is to not hand them something,” said former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who also made Obama’s short list of potential running mates in 2008. “I would be surprised if President Obama did anything that really became a lightning rod.”
Hill said the former president’s remarks would take listeners through firsthand accounts of Biden’s role as vice president during the administration, including his oversight of the 2009 stimulus that helped lift the U.S. out of the Great Recession and his work on expanding health care insurance through Obamacare.
Trump, who votes absentee himself, has railed against states embracing universal mail ballots – that is, automatically sending a ballot to every registered voter. But only a small number of states use that approach, and Trump has repeatedly conflated that system with those in use in states like Michigan.
Democrats accuse Trump of trying to sow doubt about the election results.
Democrats are road testing an unprecedented national convention this week as the coronavirus pandemic curbs the pomp and sense of excitement campaigns usually build around the formal nomination of a presidential candidate. Though the glitzy stage performances and balloon drops of past years are missing, the event will nevertheless steer the party’s path as the Democratic faithful coalesce around Biden.
Michelle Obama may have set the tone with her blistering review of Trump’s first term during her address on the convention’s first night.
“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” she said in an address that Trump later mocked because it was taped rather than delivered live. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment.”
Ushering in a ‘new era’
Obama left office in 2017 with an almost 60% approval rating, and he has maintained his appeal on the left as Trump slams him nearly every day. When asked which president in their lifetimes has done the best job, 44% of Americans chose Obama as their first or second pick compared with 33% for Bill Clinton and 32% for Ronald Reagan, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.
A CBS News/YouGov poll this week found 92% of Democrats are eager to hear Obama at the convention, compared with 91% who said the same of Biden or his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. The same CBS survey found 63% of Democrats want to hear liberal superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., compared to roughly 58% who said the same of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Yarmuth, chairman of the House Budget Committee, said the party must use this week’s convention to calm anxieties about what Democrats plan to do if they prevail in the fall.
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“I’m not sure I want everybody out there talking about Green New Deals, and that type of thing, but if we take over the government this is where the country needs a comfort level,” he said.
“We’re going to be under a lot of pressure to talk about reparations, universal basic income (and) Medicare for all,” he added. “And what Obama can do is, ironically, reassure people we are not going to go off the rails – even though we may.”
Obama, party leaders say, must demonstrate Democrats can still connect with Rust Belt voters even as the convention is likely to elevate debates around liberal demands: From looser immigration rules to tighter environmental controls to address climate change.
That’s part of the reason Democratic operatives predict Obama will look to deliver an aspirational address, touting Biden as a traditional candidate who can dial back the drama of the past four years, inch the party toward a more progressive path and begin to heal racial wounds that have continued to resurface during the Trump presidency.
In other words, Democrat strategists say, classic Obama.
“He’s not an attack dog. I would leave that to another night and speaker,” said veteran Democrat Donna Brazile, who has worked on many presidential campaigns. “The former president can help set the first few pages in a new era by highlighting why America cannot afford four more years of disruption, diversion and deceit.”
But Hill promised that Obama’s speech won’t spare Trump, and that the former president, “will highlight the cynical moves by the current administration and the Republican Party” to thwart Americans from voting.
“He’ll make a pointed case that democracy itself is on the line — along with the chance to create a better version of it,” she added.
Obama will carry forward how urgent the fall election is but also seek to contrast with the current White House occupant in terms of calling on all Americans who believe in a more generous and more just country, Hill said.
Reigniting the bromance
Democrats have long framed the Biden-Obama relationship as something like the Hollywood formula for the buddy cop movie: An interracial pair with noticeably different temperaments and styles forging a friendship as they move through a thickening plot.
Together they carry closely synced messages to different constituencies. That was evidenced in a video released by the Biden campaign last month that featured the two palling around before launching into a “socially distanced” conversation in which they accused Trump of refusing to take responsibility for anything during the pandemic.
“We were different in age, different in background, his politics were a little bit different than mine, but it was precisely those differences that I thought made him ideal,” Obama said during a recent podcast interview with former adviser David Plouffe. “What we shared (were) some core beliefs. … And as a result, I had a basic trust in him.”
Despite the affection, which former aides say is genuine, there have been cracks in the bromance, some of which have been brought back to the fore in recent weeks.
Biden’s description of Obama in 2007 as the “first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean” is the kind of racial gaffe that has hounded him for years – including this year, when he has drawn fire for his insensitive comments at a time when the nation is grappling with the death of George Floyd, protests and violence in major U.S. cities and Trump’s remarks supporting symbols of the Confederacy.
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Others have pointed to Obama’s relatively quick embrace of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential race, musing aloud in June of that year whether anyone had ever been “so qualified” for the job. Since leaving office, Obama has kept mostly out of view, and that has meant a less visible role for him on the Biden campaign trail, even before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Obama aides have said the former president has remained less visible in part to avoid creating a target for Trump.
Antoine Banks, a University of Maryland political scientist, predicted that Obama’s role in the 2020 campaign will be the most consequential for a former president. But there’s a risk with the approach, Banks warned: Relying on Obama’s popularity and mass appeal with the party too much could mean overshadowing the current candidates.
“Trump will criticize him and say, ‘he’s not on the ticket’ so they have to balance this where they get people mobilized but still understand Biden and Harris are the candidates,” Banks said.
Trump and other Republicans have been eager to suggest a rift between the two men, while at the same time painting Biden with Obama’s more controversial moves. Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh pointed to a report in The New York Times last year that, citing anonymous sources, asserted Obama had told Biden he didn’t have to run for president if he didn’t want to.
Murtaugh argued that the speech would “just remind everyone that Obama and Biden presided over the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression.”
That’s a line Trump has used frequently, dating back to before the 2016 election. Independent fact checkers have found there is data to back up the claim, when measured by the average rate of annual economy growth. But economists also point out that the recovery that began under Obama was the longest in modern U.S. history.
Biden aides, meanwhile, disputed the Trump campaign’s characterization of the record.
“The Obama-Biden Administration took the reins during what was, until recently, the worst downturn since the Great Depression – and turned it into the longest streak of private sector job growth on record,” said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates.
“Trump’s failed leadership has plunged the strong, growing economy he inherited into the deepest recession in generations and cost nearly 170,000 Americans their lives,” he added.
Return to normal
Democrats insist that the party’s internal ideological squabbles over health care, immigration and the environment will be eclipsed by a shared determination to deny Trump a second term.
If that’s true, several said, the most important thing Obama can confer on Biden during the convention and in the weeks ahead is a sense that the former vice president would restore comity to American politics.
“President Obama is still widely viewed as the most gifted messenger of the Democratic agenda in America,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “The most important thing he can do in this moment is remind voters of contrast between his presidency and the first four years of the Trump presidency.”
Another benefit Obama could provide is to remind people of the work Biden undertook on the administration’s behalf for eight years.
Voters know who Biden is but they may not know Obama tapped him to administer the 2009 Recovery Act, which helped stimulate the economic recovery. Obama also frequently turned to Biden, who had deep friendships on both sides of the aisle after nearly four decades in the Senate, to close major deals with Republicans.
“So this is one of the best chances of the cycle to give people some color and dimension as to who Joe Biden is and what he stands for, all from the mouth of the most trusted character witness on the planet,” said Teddy Goff, a Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s digital operation in 2012.
A clear split emerged during the Democratic primary between candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sanders, who pressed Biden to defend healthcare and immigration policies espoused by the Obama administration. Banks, the political scientist, noted that most voters aren’t as focused on nuanced policy debates and argued that Obama’s speech would likely play well in both wings of the party.
“Obama is able to craft a message to make people feel comfortable that he cares about these groups and these issues, but he isn’t going to be pushing these far-left issues,” he predicted. “Obama is all about looking to the future and lifting up all boats.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Obama to make case for Biden, rally young voters at DNC on Wednesday