Barack Obama made his 2020 presidential campaign trail debut on Wednesday with a rousing speech in Philadelphia that lambasted Donald Trump’s record in the White House and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
With fewer than two weeks to go until election day, the former US president met a group of black community leaders before addressing a drive-in rally at a baseball park in Pennsylvania’s largest city, where he urged voters to back Joe Biden, his former vice-president.
Voters beeped their car horns in approval as Mr Obama, the 44th US president, attacked the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. “Donald Trump wants to take full credit for the economy he inherited and no responsibility for the pandemic he ignored,” he said.
He added: “We literally left this White House a pandemic playbook that would have shown them how to respond before the virus reached our shores . . . We don’t know where that playbook went.”
Mr Obama’s attack on the president’s handling of the virus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, came as the pandemic appeared to be getting worse in many parts of the country.
For the first time since August 21, there are more than 40,000 people in US hospitals with coronavirus, with that tally on Tuesday hitting 40,271, according to Covid Tracking Project data. Seven states reported record levels of hospitalisations on Wednesday
“Eight months into this pandemic, cases are rising again across this country,” Mr Obama said. “Donald Trump isn’t going to suddenly protect all of us. He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself.”
In a town hall with Sinclair Broadcast Group that aired on Wednesday evening, Mr Trump said there was “not much” he would have done differently with regards to his handling of the virus.
“Look it’s all over the world . . . China should have stopped it,” Mr Trump said. The president reiterated his claim that some in the scientific community did not support wearing a mask to stop the virus.
“Frankly some people don’t like [the mask]. Some people don’t like it scientifically,” Mr Trump asserted, but insisted he had “no problem with the mask” himself.
In his Philadelphia appearance, Mr Obama attacked Mr Trump’s handling of the economy, with millions still out of work after the pandemic prompted states to lock down. An FT-Peterson poll out this week found that, for the first time this year, more Americans think the president has hurt, rather than helped the economy.
“He did inherit the longest streak of job growth in American history, but just like everything else he inherited, he messed it up,” Mr Obama said. “The economic damage he inflicted by botching the pandemic response means he will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to actually lose jobs.”
Pennsylvania is a battleground state that is seen as “must-win” by both campaigns. Four years ago Mr Trump won the state’s 20 Electoral College votes by a margin of just 44,000 votes against Hillary Clinton.
Mr Biden currently enjoys a polling advantage in the state. An FT analysis of Real Clear Politics data shows the Democratic challenger leading Mr Trump by almost 6 points there.
The former vice-president is also ahead in several other key swing states, but Democrats have been reluctant to appear overconfident heading into polling day on November 3, given Mr Trump’s come-from-behind victory over Mrs Clinton in 2016.
Mr Obama on Thursday urged voters not to be “complacent” despite public opinion polling suggesting that Mr Biden has the advantage.
“I don’t care about the polls,” he said. “There were a whole bunch of polls last time. It didn’t work out because a whole bunch of folks stayed home, and got lazy and complacent. Not this time. Not in this election.”
Americans’ disapproval of Mr Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic also appears to be dragging down polling figures for many Republican congressional candidates in closely-fought races.
Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah who is not seeking re-election this cycle, said on Wednesday that he had voted early but had not supported Mr Trump, although he declined to say whether he had backed Mr Biden, instead.
Mr Obama and his wife Michelle are Mr Biden’s best-known and most popular supporters. Fifty-eight per cent of Americans have a positive opinion of the former president, according to YouGov, making him the second most popular Democrat in America, behind Jimmy Carter, another former occupant of the White House.
Mr Obama has stayed largely out of the public eye since he left the White House in January 2017. He did not publicly back Mr Biden’s candidacy until after it was clear that the former US vice-president had won the Democratic primary earlier this year.
However, since then Mr Obama has become one of his former running mate’s most vocal campaign surrogates. The former president has recorded a series of campaign videos with Mr Biden, and gave a searing speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, saying Mr Trump’s administration had “shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win”.
Wednesday marked Mr Obama’s first in-person appearance in a campaign that has been stymied by the coronavirus pandemic; there have been far fewer events and rallies than in a normal election year.
At the community event earlier on Wednesday, Mr Obama, who ran his 2008 presidential campaign on a slogan of “hope and change”, said: “I have never lost hope over these last four years. I have been mad. I have been frustrated. But I haven’t lost hope, and the reason is because I never expected progress to move directly in a straight line.”
Mr Trump was expected to hold his own campaign rally on Wednesday night in North Carolina, a battleground state he won four years ago by more than three points. An FT analysis of recent polls shows Mr Biden up by 2.2 points in the state.
Additional reporting by Peter Wells in New York and Courtney Weaver in Washington
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