President Obama made his first appearance on the campaign trail in two months in Philadelphia this afternoon, speaking to several thousand supporters who appeared more interested in seeing him than hearing about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The lovefest started early. An introduction by Democratic Rep. Bob Brady included the member of Congress calling the president his "boss" a number of times, and urging the crowd to give him a real "Philly welcome." The president started with football, mentioning that Joe Biden had been in the city over the weekend to watch the Philadelphias Eagles' home opener. A mention of Carson Wentz, the Eagles' first round draft pick rookie quarterback, merited light applause but when the president said he reminded Biden he was a Chicago Bears fan, the boos came out.
Prior to the event, a local Hillary Clinton volunteer described Obama's visit as his "swan song" in Philadelphia and promised Clinton would return before election day. Philadelphia was also the site of the Democratic National Convention this summer.
The president's speech alternated between his accomplishments and Hillary Clinton's and Donald Trump's flaws. "I keep on reading this analysis that Trump's got support from working folks," Obama said incredulously. "Really? This is the guy you want to be championing working people? The guy who spent 70 years on this Earth showing no concern for working people?"
Obama attempted to contrast Donald Trump with Ronald Reagan, putting the latter's description of America as a "shining city on a hill" with Trump's characterization of it at the Republican National Convention as a "divided crime scene." He also asked the crowd to imagine Reagan praising someone like Vladimir Putin in the way that Trump did.
Obama dismissed Trump's pessimistic vision, insisting that he was "more optimistic about the future" than he ever has been before, citing, among other things, news that household incomes have spiked this year. As I waited in the security line to enter the area were the president was speaking today, an older gentleman in front of me struck up a conversation about politics, lamenting that the middle class was being eviscerated and commenting that corporations had "stripped down" benefits for workers before finally stripping the jobs themselves and sending them overseas. It's a kind of zero-sum thinking that's become worryingly popular in this election cycle and a sentiment that would fit in just as well, if not better, at a Trump rally.
Obama also complained about the treatment Clinton was receiving. "She has been caricaturized by the right," he said, "and some on the left." (Related: Watch then Senator Obama run through then Senator Clinton's track record in a stump speech in Pennsylvania during the 2008 primaries)
Obama also insisted Clinton was "the most scrutinized candidate in history." A woman next to me disagreed, telling Obama (although he couldn't hear her) that he was the most scrutinized candidate in history. She later told me she had voted for Obama twice but was voting for Jill Stein. I told her I voted for Obama in 2008 but would be voting for Gary Johnson this time.
Although presidential elections since at least 2000 have been billed by various people as the "most important" or consequential elections ever, President Obama said this election was different. "This is not the usual choice between parties and policies, it's more fundamental," Obama told the crowd, "it's about the meaning of America." By the end, Obama was insisting that only voting straight-ticket Democrat would keep voters safe, secure, and prosperous.
"Democracy is not a spectator sport," Obama said, "you can't tweet your vote in." Yet the gentleman in the security line with me insisted Obama had lost North Carolina in 2012 after winning it in 2008 because of additional voter restrictions, and said he was worried that dozens of other states were making it harder to vote. If voting is such a hardship, why wouldn't tweeting your vote in be considered progress? Because Donald Trump. Obama said Trump's vision for the country was "not the America I know."
After letting out a seemingly half-hearted "Hillary!" cheer to get the crowd started, the president said he was committed to helping Clinton. "I am really into electing Hillary Clinton, this is not me going through the motions," he insisted. "I really really really want to elect Hillary Clinton." Obama insisted there was not a crisis that would come up in a Clinton administration that she had not seen before, noting that presidents were not "graded on a curve" and that it was "serious business."
Obama moved on to what he considered "false equivalency" on issues like disclosures made by the candidates and their respective charitable foundations. The Clinton Foundation, Obama insisted, had saved millions of lives while Trump used his charity to purchase a portrait of himself. "You want to debate transparency?" Obama asked the crowd. He was not referring to the recent Vox.com article that argued against transparency, particularly for Clinton. It was not in itself a new idea.
This was President Obama's first solo appearance on the campaign trail in 2016, and he said he enjoyed being back. The crowd sounded more enthusiastic for him than for Hillary, and certainly than for any other speaker, candidate or otherwise. A 22-year-old Philly resident who told me he came specifically to see President Obama in person said he was not decided about Clinton, but rather leaning toward Gary Johnson. A number of supporters in the crowd yelled "I love you" to Obama, and the crowd broke into a "thank you" chant at least twice. The president himself also threw in a "thanks, Obama" after rattling off what he perceived to be a number of his accomplishments in the last seven years. Outside the security perimeter, protesters held up signs about the Dakota Access Pipeline, calling for it to be stopped. Inside the security perimeter, where signs were among prohibited item, some supporters had a hand-made banner that said "Thanks Obama." The national anthem was played at the beginning of the event. No one appeared to take a knee, remain seated, or otherwise protest or decline to participate in any way.