Former President Barack Obama urged voters to shake off their exhaustion with politics during his first in-person foray onto the campaign trail in 2021, telling voters in Virginia that “we can’t afford to be tired.”
Obama, in remarks supporting Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe, lambasted his opponent Glenn Youngkin, repeatedly mocking the Republican for a disconnect between how he casts himself and what his policies and private comments say about him. The former president also slammed Republicans for looking to curb voting, asking rhetorically, “What are they so afraid of?”
“You can’t run ads telling me you are a regular old hoops-playing, dish-washing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy,” Obama said, hitting Youngkin for the Republican rally earlier this month where organizers pledged allegiance to a flag that was said to be used at the January 6 insurrection. Former President Donald Trump called into the rally, but Youngkin did not appear at the event.
Youngkin, who used to run the Carlyle Group, a large private equity firm, has run a number of ads showing him in casual settings, like playing basketball or doing housework. Obama took a shot at the ads, joking, “Whenever a wealthy person runs for office, they always want to show you what a regular guy they are.”
Obama went on to argue that this disconnect is about more than just standard politics, telling the assembled audience that it shows the Republican candidate either actually “believes in the same conspiracy theories that resulted” in the January 6 insurrection or he “doesn’t believe it but he’s willing to go along with it to say or do anything to get elected.”
“And maybe that is worse,” he added, because that “says something about character. And character will end up showing when you actually are in office.”
And when McAuliffe supporters booed at the mention of Youngkin, Obama turned back to a phrase he has used throughout his political career: “Don’t boo, vote. Booing doesn’t do nothing.”
‘We can’t afford to be tired.’
Obama’s appearance in Virginia is aimed squarely at turning out the Democratic base, something the McAuliffe campaign and Democrats throughout the commonwealth have been worried about in the closing weeks of the campaign.
A recent Monmouth University poll highlighted these concerns: 49% of Republican voters surveyed said they were enthusiastic about the race, compared to 26% of Democrats — a 23-percentage point chasm just weeks out from the November 2 election.
Obama looked to turn around those numbers, at least in the Richmond area, a solidly Democratic city in the commonwealth where Obama won nearly 80% of the vote in 2008 and nearly 78% in 2012.
“I know a lot of people are tired politics right now,” Obama said, acknowledging the lack of enthusiasm among Democrats. “Listen, I will make a confession. I never watch political shows. … I understand why people might be tired of politics.”
The former president added: “Here is the thing, we can’t afford to be tired.”
The Trump card
While Obama did not directly mention Trump, McAuliffe, who spoke before Obama outside the James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University, did repeatedly.
“Glenn Youngkin is not a reasonable Republican,” McAuliffe said. “I call him Donald Trump in khakis. Do we want a lapdog to Donald Trump to be our governor here in the commonwealth? No we don’t.”
McAuliffe has looked to boost Democratic turnout in the commonwealth by nationalizing the race, comparing Youngkin to Trump at every opportunity.
And he continued this focus on Saturday, arguing that his opponent “has to suck up to Donald Trump all the time” and pledging to “be a brick wall to protect women’s rights” and “never allow politicians like Donald Trump and Glenn Youngkin ever to make abortion illegal here in the commonwealth of Virginia.”
The Richmond rally is the first on Saturday for Obama, who is slated to travel to rally for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who is running for reelection.
Both Democrats have nationalized their races to reelection, hoping to seize on continued anger at Trump in two states that backed Biden in 2020. Obama did just take in an ad he cut for McAuliffe, telling voters they “have a lot of responsibility this year.”
“Not only are you choosing your next governor, but you’re also making a statement about what direction we’re headed in as a country,” Obama says in the ad.
Obama’s appearance also highlights a stark divide in the Virginia race. While McAuliffe has leaned on a stable of top Democratic talent, from Vice President Kamala Harris to Georgia’s Stacey Abrams to President Joe Biden, Youngkin has largely campaigned alone, looking to avoid nationalizing the race in a commonwealth that has rejected Republicans on the statewide level for years.
“I’m on the ballot, I’m running against Terry McAuliffe,” Youngkin told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny this month. “Terry McAuliffe wants anybody but Terry McAuliffe campaigning, he’s inviting the world to come in and campaign with him.”
Trump is the most significant reason for that. The former President lost the state by ten percentage points in 2020 and remains an unpopular figure, especially in vote-rich areas in Northern Virginia. McAuliffe and top Democrats in the state, even without a Trump visit, have used the former president as his primary foil in the race, looking to tie Youngkin to the polarizing Republican at every event.
“Not once, but twice, we have rejected Trump and his anti-science, unhinged, anti-choice rhetoric,” Hala Ayala, the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate, said on Saturday. “But you know what…. (it’s) time for us to do it again.”
And voters in Richmond made clear that Trump was front of mind in their decision to back McAuliffe.
“If we don’t get McAuliffe in the governor’s position and we get Youngkin, I am afraid we are going to have another Trump invasion and this country doesn’t need that,” said Brenda Johnson, a 73-year-old retired educator who was born in Richmond. “Too many of his principles are the same as Trump’s, and we have suffered so terribly behind that administration that I’m afraid for the country.”
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