Obama in demand as Biden struggles to energize crowds

AP Photo/Alberto Mariani
Former President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic rally in Phoenix, Nov. 2, 2022.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – President Biden took the stage here the other night and for more than 30 minutes tried to rally a college campus around his policies, from student loan debt to prescription drug costs to hearing aid prices.

Saving $3,000 per year on hearing aids, he shouted at the significant volume he kept throughout. “You hear me?! If I don’t stop talking so loud, you’re all going to have hearing loss!”

His delivery was often halting and at times confusing – at one point he referred to this era as “the 20th century going into the second quarter of the 21st century” – and at the end he thanked the crowd, some of whom had left during his remarks, for being “a very patient audience, especially standing there all this time.”

Just over two hours later and 2,500 miles away, Biden’s predecessor and onetime boss Barack Obama was rallying a different crowd in a different state. Musician John Legend was the opening act at a high school in North Las Vegas, and for 45 minutes Obama swung between sharp, can-you-believe-this barbs at the modern Republican Party and call-and-response with the crowd.

I love you back, he said at one point, one of several times he stopped mid-thought to acknowledge the adulation from his audience. “But we’ve got to focus right now! We’ve got to focus.”

While Biden was in a state that is largely off the map of Democratic competitiveness – recent polls give Republicans a comfortable lead in the top races in Florida – Obama was in perhaps the most vigorously fought battleground, with a range of must-win races in toss-up territory.

It was a vivid illustration of the two men in two different circumstances during a crucial final stretch before the midterm elections, and it showcased the yawning gap in star power and charisma between the two partners. It put the sitting president at arm’s length from the most important places while the former president, even though he himself hasn’t been on a ballot in a decade, was dispatched to play a familiar role as the Democratic Party’s rallier-in-chief.

Even some of those who attend Biden’s rallies say he is not an energizing force for the party. “To be honest, not really,” said Marvin Wilson, a 51-year-old field organizer for the Florida Democrats who attended Biden’s rally.

Asked about Obama, Wilson added, “He’s more energetic. He’s a better communicator. He’s more energizing, and he draws your attention. The president doesn’t do that.”

In some ways, Biden and Obama are experiencing a bit of a role reversal from the days when Obama was a first-term president whose low approval ratings made him less desirable and Biden was a sought-after campaign commodity. On Saturday they will appear together in Philadelphia, the kind of joint appearance that some White House aides had been uneasy about for fear that Obama would overshadow Biden and invite unfavorable comparisons.

But the stakes are high for Democrats with the midterms days away, and the Philadelphia event came together as a result of Biden advisers requesting that Obama come for a joint appearance, according to those familiar with the planning, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics.

Aides and advisers to both men insist there is no resentment, even as Biden has had to take a back seat to the party’s former leader in some ways. The advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions, said they were in frequent touch and that the Obama staff clears its events with Biden’s so that they are in close coordination.

Biden advisers also insist that he is comfortable with Obama in the spotlight – “We want people on the field, and we would be foolish if we didn’t want assets in play,” one said – and point to one of his frequent public jokes to candidates emphasizing that he has no ego when it comes to helping Democrats.

I’ll come campaign for you or against you – whichever will help the most, Biden often says.

Still, Obama, 61, remains a rock star as the country’s first Black president and a charismatic, eloquent figure. In contrast, Biden, who turns 80 this month, retains affection in the party, but his sometimes stumbling style clearly inspires less adulation and excitement.

Obama has been flooded with requests from various campaigns, and over the past few months his aides have tried to cull them to hit some of the most important stops where they feel he can have the biggest impact. Many of the same candidates who kept their distance from Biden were eager to have Obama.

President Obama was always most effective in a large crowd, a rally where he could deliver a call to action and talk about ‘fired up, ready to go,’ said Ben LaBolt, a strategist who worked for Obama’s reelection campaign and has worked closely with the Biden White House. “Biden has been a brilliant retail politician when he can sit down with a family at a diner or at a town hall meeting where he can hear personal stories.”

LaBolt added, “They’ve always had their own strengths and addressed each other’s deficiencies.”

But in the frenzied closing days of a crucial campaign, the ability to energize thousands at a rally may be more valuable than the capacity to connect with an intimate group. And Obama benefits from not having attempted to command the political spotlight in recent years, allowing him to seem like a fresher voice.

If he’s going to do five to 10 political events every two years, it just commands a different level of press and voters attention and allows him to break through, LaBolt said. “He hasn’t overused the spotlight of the post-presidency to engage in any saturated campaign. So he really speaks with a powerful microphone whenever he speaks.”

Obama has traveled in the past week to Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Arizona – virtually every high-profile state his party is fighting to win.

In addition to Florida, Biden this week is traveling to New Mexico, California and Illinois. He is concluding the midterm campaign season with an election eve rally in Maryland, a heavily blue state that has no races that Democrats are concerned about.

In a party that has struggled to find new voices that capture the nation’s attention – and is now led by a 79-year-old who began his political career half a century ago – Obama has become the must-have surrogate of the season.

He mixes humor and fresh lines about new candidates with some of his greatest hits of the past. He’s cut more than 25 ads and robocalls for candidates, and each of his rally appearances has helped fill hundreds of volunteer shifts for get-out-the-vote efforts. He’s seen as having particular reach in motivating the young voters that Biden may have a hard time mobilizing.

Many of the issues that Biden and Obama talk about are similar – raising alarms about threats to democracy and abortion rights, addressing inflation and crime, and pointing to the Democratic legislative victories of the past two years.

The desire for Obama on the campaign trail is a big change from his own first midterm as president, in 2010. At the time, the new president was fighting the same historical trends that Biden is now facing. He was deeply unpopular following his pursuit of the Affordable Care Act his party’s difficult efforts to sell it to a skeptical electorate.

That year, it was Biden who was often in demand as the vice president traveled to competitive blue-collar districts where Obama was not welcomed. Obama was in a similar position then to Biden’s now, with his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, considered the most sought-after surrogate that year.

Biden was also seen as a key asset in the 2018 midterms, during Donald Trump’s presidency, often traveling to the same states that he is now asked to avoid. He was asked to appear a few weeks before the 2018 midterms in Las Vegas, rallying the party in the same state where Obama appeared this week.

President Obama wants to be as helpful as he can be, and that’s why he’s crisscrossing the country to make the case, said Eric Schultz, a senior Obama adviser.

He’s not in the muck of day-to-day governing, he added. “That’s the virtue of being a former president. He brings an elevated perspective that I think people appreciate and has widespread appeal.”

Biden is facing the head winds that almost every president in modern history has confronted. Since 1934, the only first-term president whose party hasn’t lost House seats in a midterm election was George W. Bush, when Republicans gained eight seats in the 2002 midterms at a time when the country was on a war footing in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

During the rally on Tuesday night in Florida, at least a quarter of the crowd cleared out while Biden was speaking. While there was energy and chants of “Let’s go, Joe!” when he took the stage – and at moments in which he promised to codify abortion rights or attacked Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis – there were many times when people were less engaged, looking at their phones or otherwise fairly quiet.

His digressions into talk about the debt ceiling did not appear to land. “I know this is complicated stuff,” he conceded. “But at the end of the year, every year, we have obligations of debt around the world.”

Organizers at the event would not allow reporters to speak with attendees at the rally, but a Washington Post reporter found several near the restrooms.

Wilson, the organizer who said he wasn’t energized by Biden, said as a member of the Black community, he felt there were issues the president had “utterly ignored.”

He doesn’t motivate me, Wilson said. “I’m not trying to say anything negative about him. Outside of student loans, that’s the only thing he’s done that’s been really good.” Wilson said he has $410,000 worth of loans from attending law school at the University of Miami, some of which may be forgiven if the law is allowed to go into effect.

Still, some of those assembled in the college gym had mostly praise for Biden.

Caroline Henry, 51, who brought her 11-year-old son with her to the rally, said she thought Biden was “great” and working to turn the country around after Trump. She said she always watches Biden on TV and finds him to be energizing. Like Wilson, Henry said Biden’s student loan forgiveness was his best policy. She has $190,000 of loans from Florida Memorial University that will all be forgiven if the measure can go into effect.

But when asked about Obama, Henry said: “Obama gave a sense of hope.” She said Biden does, too, but she wished Obama could run for president again with Biden as his vice president.

I wish they could team up again, Henry said. “But either way, [Obama] is supporting him, so that’s a good thing.”