President Barack Obama on Wednesday was back to doing what he does best: campaigning against Washington at its worst.
Stumping for Hillary Clinton in North Carolina, Obama leaned hard on the message of changing the practice of politics that helped him beat her in the primary and ultimately propelled him into office eight years ago. Earlier this year, he acknowledged he failed. In fact, it’s arguably gotten worse. But that means he can keep making that case, this time in favor of his former foe and other Democrats running for Senate.
He also made a targeted pitch — part incitement of defiance and part guilt-trip — to black voters, who so far are not early voting at the same rate as other recent presidential elections.
Obama, whose tone veered from arch to folksy, seized on recent remarks by Senate Republicans that lay bare the grim prospects for governing after he leaves office.
“Right now, because a lot of them think that Trump will lose, they’re already promising even more unprecedented dysfunction in Washington, which is pretty hard to do,” Obama said, ticking off a list of statements — “years of investigations, years of hearings, more shutdowns, more obstruction.”
“You’ve got some Republicans in Congress who are already suggesting they will impeach Hillary,” Obama added, raising his voice. “She hasn’t even been elected yet. And it doesn’t matter what evidence, they just — they’ll find something. That’s what they’re saying already.”
Obama used fresh fodder to attack Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who recently promised to block any Clinton nominees for the Supreme Court. It’s a particularly sore spot for this president, who has struggled to get a hearing, much less a vote, for Merrick Garland, his nominee to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.
“Keep in mind the reason that they said they would not have a hearing or vote for my Supreme Court nomination, bucking all of American history, was because they thought the American people should decide the next Supreme Court justice,” Obama said. “Now they are saying that, well, if they’d won’t decide the way we want them to, maybe we won’t even do that.”
As the polls have shown a persistently narrow path for Trump in recent weeks, Obama has been using his swing-state stops (chosen, the White House said, by the Clinton campaign) to excoriate the Republican Senate candidates. As has been the case in Florida, Ohio and Nevada, Obama spent more time trashing Burr than talking up Deborah Ross, the Democratic challenger.
Obama acknowledged that he had favorable personal impressions of Burr — “I used to work out with him in the gym in the Senate, he’s a perfectly nice guy,” he said — but lambasted him for his positions throughout this campaign. He hit him for supporting Trump and for controversy over his recent private joke about putting a “bulls-eye” on Clinton, saying the incumbent had gone from supporting Trump to “mimicking” him.
“I want to be clear about something,” Obama told the rambunctious crowd at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Gridlock is not some sort of mysterious fog that descends on Washington. It’s not a monster movie. It’s not happening because both sides are being equally unreasonable. I mean, I know it’s hard to view me as objective here, but I’m about to leave. I just wanted you to know the truth.”
Indeed, because Obama is leaving, he can run harder against down-ballot Republicans than can Clinton, who says she aspires to work with them if she wins the White House. Obama can also talk to black voters in a way Clinton cannot, and if early voting numbers are any sign, they’re not embracing her candidacy the way they did his in 2008 and 2012.
So Obama’s other order of “bidness” (“Not business,” he said, “bidness”) was to boost those sagging numbers.
In 2012, Democratic organizers credited historic black turnout in states like Florida to backlash against efforts to impose new voting restrictions. Obama tried to inspire the same sense of defiance on Wednesday in North Carolina, noting that Republicans in the state a few years ago passed one of the “worst voter suppression laws in the country” that targeted black voters.
“Already, right now, Donald Trump is calling on his supporters. Where are those areas that he’s talking about?” Obama said. “There are groups that are not even making secret plans. They are just saying that they will try to suppress the African-American vote on Election Day. Or the youth vote on Election Day.”
Obama did not repeat an appeal to African-Americans he made in September at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Dinner, when he said he would consider it a “personal insult” to the first black president if blacks didn’t turn out for Clinton. But he did lay on the on the guilt, talking about 100-year-old Grace Ferguson, who, Obama said almost had her voter registration revoked by Republicans this year.
“Imagine what Grace has seen in the arc of her 100 years,” Obama said, invoking not only changing technologies but also historical barriers to voting, like poll taxes. “How are we going to do that after all she has been through? Don’t disrespect her like that.”
He continued, “How are we going to betray all of those who worked so hard, risk everything for the vote, so that we can pull the lever, and we are not going to vote? What is our excuse?”
Obama plans to keep pressing this case right up until Election Day. On Wednesday, the White House announced that he’ll head to Orlando on Sunday (his fourth trip to Florida in three weeks) and New Hampshire on Monday.
Madeline Conway contributed to this report.
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