Midterm elections are almost always about incumbents, especially if they are unpopular. But in a unique twist this year, two former presidents who lost control of the House of Representatives while in office have turned into the final mouthpieces of their respective parties.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump embody two rival visions of the meaning of America itself, extending their bitter years-long rivalry as they find themselves on opposite sides of a deep conflict over the future of American democracy.
Obama remains an image of gradual change and an increasingly diverse nation, far more popular than current Democratic President Joe Biden. He is the most sought-after political firefighter for Democrats fighting to survive close elections in the state, using him to galvanize young, minority and middle-class suburban voters.
Trump has mobilized his Make America Great Again movement, which first emerged in response to the first black presidency and is based on the idea that the cultural values of a largely white, working-class nation are under siege by political correctness, undocumented migration, pundits and the establishment.
Obama criticizes politicians, celebrities and sports stars who spread conspiracy theories, fearmongering and social media “garbage”, the most prominent exponent of which is Trump. And he delivers scathing attacks on the 45th president’s protégés who are running for office based on his 2020 campaign lies — like Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.
“Why would you vote for someone who you know is not telling the truth about something? I mean, with something this important, I don’t care how nicely they say it. I don’t care how steady they are or how well lit they are,” Obama said Wednesday in Arizona of the former local TV news anchor who has emerged as a rising MAGA star.
“What happens when the truth no longer matters?” Obama added. “If you’re just repeating something over and over and it’s a lie, but because that’s what your side is saying, that’s fine.”
Trump adopted exactly that tactic when he returned to the campaign trail in Iowa on Thursday night in what was ostensibly an appearance by GOP veteran Sen. Chuck Grassley but felt like the first warm-up for the 2024 national convention.
He falsely claimed to have won Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2020, two of the states that helped Biden win the White House.
“Your favorite president has been screwed,” Trump told his crowd on a chilly night in Sioux City, repeating false conspiracies that Obama spied on his campaign in 2016.
One interesting comparison of the styles of Trump and Obama at their rival rallies is their use of humor. Trump has long used comedy — often dark and cruel — to connect with his audience, something not always seen on television. His crowds often look like they’re having a good time, enthralled by the rule-breaking bull in the china shop, who shreds dignity with every word and tears apart his opponents with outrageous accusations and derogatory epithets.
On Thursday, Trump had his crowd in stitches in a departure from an otherwise dystopian speech as a stiff wind blew around the teleprompters that displayed his prepared remarks.
“I have these teleprompters waving like flags,” he said. “I’m going to get sick!”
Obama’s humor is usually warmer, though no less sharp, but he uses it effectively to mock Republicans before delivering a devastating political blow. For example, last weekend in Wisconsin he called Republicans the party of the rich when he accused Sen. Ron Johnson of voting for tax breaks for private jet owners.
“He fought for it. And then his grown kids bought not one, not two, but three private jets because apparently carpooling wasn’t an option. Now, I mean, you need three?” Obama joked.
People in Obama’s inner circle have noted that their former boss has been on fire this campaign season. Lacking the burdens of the presidency, Obama, unlike his former vice president, has shown the kind of freedom and joy in the grand political rallies that propelled him to the Democratic nomination in 2008.
It’s easy to tell when the 44th president doesn’t have his heart in his job. For example, he was lethargic and tired in the first rallies of his 2012 reelection race, and he didn’t come close to his best form in last year’s Virginia election.
But his rallies this year have been rocked by a pulsating energy and enthusiasm often missing from appearances by the incumbent, an older, more conventional politician. Obama has also produced far more relatable and focused economic messages than Biden has managed — ironically serving the same role for the current president that another former president, Bill Clinton, did for him in the 2012 campaign — a service that led Obama to The 42nd president was called the “Chief Explainer.”
Obama’s talent for oratory is undiminished, and he seems to be having a lot of fun showing it off. He’s like a basketball star who comes back after years of retirement and suddenly starts draining threes. And his popularity means he may fall in key states where candidates fleeing Biden’s unpopularity would not welcome a visit from the president.
But Obama’s prominence is a reminder of the kind of A-list political talent the modern Democratic Party lacks. The indictment is that its best spokesman first ran for president 14 years ago.
But despite his rhetorical clout, the question now is how effective Obama will be at turning out the election. Once in office, the former president often tried to transfer his stardust to other Democratic candidates and less talented ones. And the question in this election is whether he’s simply preaching to the converted by appealing to Democrats who were already planning to vote, or whether he’s actually selling to independent and disaffected Republicans who oppose Trump and whom Biden desperately needs to vote for his party .
Former Obama political strategist David Axelrod, now a CNN commentator, said his party was using the former boss for a specific campaign mission.
“It’s basically a time when you’re trying to win over your base, and for Democrats, that’s very important because the reason incumbents generally lose in the midterms is because their base isn’t as motivated as the absence of a party that tends to to come and vote on their grievances,” Axelrod said. “There is a difference in enthusiasm between Republicans and Democrats, at least in the polls.”
While Obama reminisces about the past presidency, Trump is on his way to build the foundation for the next one.
The most recent ex-president showed the tremendous influence he still wields in the Republican Party by promoting and endorsing a slate of candidates in his election-denying image. But there is a question of whether Trump’s role in orchestrating inexperienced or extreme candidates, such as senatorial candidates Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia and Blake Masters in Arizona, could cost his party critical seats in swing states that will decide on supervision. senate.
Republican officials worried throughout the election cycle that the former president was putting his political ambitions ahead of his party. Many still blame his false claims of voter fraud for helping two Democrats, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, win Senate seats in Georgia runoffs, giving their party 50-50 control of the chamber with votes that he cast Vice. President Kamala Harris.
As he heads to the state again, Trump has not followed his usual routine of holding multiple rallies in the most contentious states. Over the past few weeks, the GOP has managed to shift the focus of the election back to Biden, with high inflation and economic concerns spooking voters.
But there are growing signs that Trump may not wait long to announce his 2024 bid, not least because he has already indicated that he will use the presidential campaign to highlight the legal investigations he is facing into his hoarding of classified documents at his home in in March. a-Lago and his behavior leading to the rebellion at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, as evidence of political persecution.
“They’re arming the Justice Department,” Trump said at his rally Thursday, accusing Democrats of a violation he himself was guilty of when he was in the White House, treating state attorneys general as his personal lawyers.
Former Trump senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway praised the former president for not focusing on the GOP’s midterm message, a decision that could pay off with a radical Republican majority in the House of Representatives that he could use to weaken Biden during before 2024. elections.
“I’d like to do it already. … I think you can expect him to announce it soon,” Conway said of Trump’s anticipated campaign launch. “Some people are urging him to still pull off a November surprise.”
“Donald Trump is just getting started. I think I should have my cell phone on,” Conway told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Thursday.
The former president used his rally in Iowa to tease a new campaign.
“I’m very, very, very likely to do it again,” he said, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
If he succeeds, this midterm election likely won’t be the last time Trump and Obama cross swords on the campaign trail.