Obama at Philly Biden rally: ‘You’ve got to turn out like never before’

Former President Barack Obama speaks at Citizens Bank Park as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/ Matt Slocum)

Former President Barack Obama speaks at Citizens Bank Park as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/ Matt Slocum)

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Former President Barack Obama visited Philadelphia Wednesday for his first in-person campaign events of the election cycle on behalf of Joe Biden.

At an evening drive-in rally at South Philly’s Citizens Bank Park, his message was grounded in what he framed as a return to “American values.”

“You know Joe,” Obama said of his former vice president. He said Biden would preserve the Affordable Care Act, could carry out a reasonable plan to stop the coronavirus pandemic from spreading, and would not say “crazy” things.

“We have to reclaim them,” Obama said. “We have to get those values back at the center of our public life.”

Cars wait to enter at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia for a drive-in rally for Democratic candidate Joe Biden with speakers including former President Barack Obama. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

To do it, he told Philadelphians, “you’ve got to turn out like never before.”

In his two elections, Obama won Philadelphia by historically wide margins. His faithful base always began with Black voters — they make up about 44% of the city, and are 10% of Pennsylvania’s overall electorate.

Although Black voters overwhelmingly tend to cast ballots for Democrats, Black men around the country were less likely to turn out for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 than they had been for Obama.

Obama made several stops ahead of the rally, meeting with people on the street and participating in a forum with local politicians at a North Philly rec center.

Santissia West (right) came to Citizens Bank Park from her home in North Philly to hear President Obama speak at a drive-in rally for Joe Biden. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At the rally, supporters mostly stayed in their sign-adorned cars and honked their horns in approval as Obama spoke — though some got out and lined the fences that had been erected to promote social distancing. The event wasn’t open to the public and entrants needed to have tickets — campaign staff estimated a few hundred supporters turned out.

Wendy Latham and her brother, Bradley Latham, were among them. She lives in Langhorne, Bucks County and he was visiting from New Orleans.

Obama, Wendy said, represents “the soul of America.” She added, she’s “just trying to get some goodness here.”

Chiming in, her brother was a little more blunt: “Donald Trump is an idiot.”

Obama hit on both those perceptions of the president in his speech. He cast Trump as a blunderer, referencing his reported hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to unknown lenders, and his recently uncovered Chinese bank account.

“Can you imagine if I had a secret Chinese bank account when I was president?” he asked the crowd.

Perhaps his harshest criticism of Trump was for his handling of the pandemic.

“I want to be honest here,” Obama said. “This pandemic would have been challenging for any president. But this idea that somehow this White House has done anything  but completely screw this up, is just not true.”

He said Biden and Harris promise a return to normalcy, because “you’re not going to have to think about the crazy things they say everyday … You might be able to have a normal Thanksgiving dinner.”

Obama also urged Philadelphians to vote for Democrats in down-ballot races, noting that in order for Pennsylvania’s House and Senate to return to Democratic control for the first time in years, just nine seats in the House and four in the Senate need to flip.

In Philadelphia, and around the state, this election is expected to hinge less on Biden or President Donald Trump winning over swing voters, and more on the candidates inspiring voters who have a preference, but who might not turn out for a variety of reasons.

Trump’s margin of victory was razor thin in 2016 — 44,000 votes, or less than one percentage point. That means any bump in turnout — in reliably blue Philadelphia, in the reddening Northeast, or anywhere else — could be crucial.

The president has sought to gin up his base with calls for law and order, criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and unfounded accusations of coordinated voter fraud, among other things.

On Wednesday, at least, Obama would circle around after each critique of Trump and return to a positive message.

“America is a good and decent place. But we’ve just had so much noise that sometimes, it’s hard to remember,” he said. “Philadelphia, I’m asking you to remember.”

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