She never got to vote for him because she was too young. But when Barack Obama came to rally this week, Emma Berlage wouldn’t have missed him for the world. “It’s a Friday night, Halloween weekend no less, and everybody’s here,” the 24-year-old said. “After he was president he’s continued to stay cool and very popular with Democrats.”
More popular than the current president, Joe Biden? “Yes. I mean, in terms of coolness, yes!”
Obama has played many parts in America’s political life – new hope, history maker, elder statesman. Now he had arrived as would-be saviour.
The first Black president was in Atlanta, Georgia, to fire up voters ahead of midterm elections that will decide control of Congress and perhaps the fate of American democracy. Opinion polls suggest that the contest is slipping away from Biden’s Democrats in favour of a Republican party still in thrall to Donald Trump.
Among the worries is low enthusiasm in the Democratic base. A recent poll by Politico-Morning Consult found that just 25% of Black registered voters describe themselves as “extremely enthusiastic” about voting in the midterm elections, compared with about 37% of white voters and 35% of Hispanic voters.
If anyone can turn the situation around it is Obama, who was greeted by a largely Black crowd of more than 5,000 people with nostalgic cheers and chants of his presidential election slogan, “Yes, we can!” Biden, by contrast, with job approval ratings in the low 40s, has been keeping a low profile on the campaign trail.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “Obama is the Democratic party rock star. There’s no one close to Obama in terms of his ability to turn out voters. The key issue is going to be the effectiveness of the ground operations to capitalise on the turnout and the ability to link his visit to the strategy they have of using social media to augment and amplify the personal visits.”
Obama’s post-presidency has included a 768-page memoir (with another volume to come), a deal with the streaming giant Netflix – he won the best narrator Emmy award for his documentary series, Our Great National Parks – and plans for a $500m presidential centre in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago.
On Friday, wearing a white shirt with open collar and rolled-up sleeves, the 61-year-old spoke with the ease and humour of one no longer burdened by office. “I have to admit, sometimes going out on the campaign trail feels a little harder than it used to,” he said. “And not just because I’m older and greyer, a little stiffer – Michelle says I’m still cute, though.”
But the message to supporters holding signs that said “One Georgia”, “Georgia votes early” and “Defend choice” – a reference to abortion rights – in a sports and entertainment arena near Atlanta airport was urgent enough as Democrats strive to preserve narrow majorities in the House and Senate and claim key state governorships.
“I get why people are anxious,” Obama said. “I get why you might be worried. I understand why it might be tempting sometimes just to tune out, to watch football or Dancing with the Stars, but I’m here to tell you that tuning out is not an option. Despair is not an option.
“The only way to make this economy fairer is if we, all of us, fight for it. The only way to save democracy is if we, together, nurture it and fight for it. And that starts with electing people who know you and see you and care about you. People who will struggle alongside you.”
That he had brought this clarion call to Georgia was no accident. The deep south state was a fulcrum of the Confederacy during the civil war and carries the scars of slavery and segregation. It was also the birthplace of Martin Luther King and a crucible of the civil rights struggle. After decades in Republican hands, it has supplanted Florida as arguably the most crucial electoral battleground in the country.
Biden narrowly won here in 2020, a result that Trump, in a prolonged fit of pique, has never accepted. Soon after, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won two Senate seats, giving Democrats control of the chamber and Biden scope to pass a more ambitious agenda than had seemed imaginable.
Warnock, pastor of the church where King preached and the first Black senator in Georgia’s history, is now up for re-election against Trump-backed Herschel Walker, a former American football star with no political experience and plenty of personal scandals.
For months Warnock had held a steady polling edge over Walker but the gap has narrowed. On Thursday the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, was caught by a TV camera microphone at an event telling Biden that the race in Georgia was going “downhill”, adding: “It’s hard to believe that they will go for Herschel Walker.”
Obama acknowledged that Walker had been “a heck of a football player” but questioned whether that made him the best person to represent Georgians in the Senate or make critical decisions about the economy and foreign policy.
“Let’s do a thought experiment,” the ex-president said. “Let’s say you’re at the airport, and you see Mr Walker. And you say, hey, there’s Herschel Walker, Heisman winner. Let’s have him fly the plane.” The crowd erupted in laughter. “You probably wouldn’t say that. You’d want to know: does he know how to fly an airplane?
“Or let’s say you go to the hospital, and you say, ‘that Walker guy, he sure could turn up at Sanford Stadium [the University of Georgia football arena]. Give him a scalpel.’ No, you wouldn’t say that. You’d ask – at least, I would – ‘has he done surgery before?’”
There is little evidence that Walker has taken any interest or displayed any kind of inclination towards public service or volunteer work, Obama added. “Seems to me, he’s a celebrity who wants to be a politician. And we’ve seen how that goes. We’ve seen that before.”
Walker has faced allegations of domestic violence from his ex-wife. More recently, two women have said that Walker pressured them to have abortions during their relationships, allegations he has denied. Walker opposes abortion but has been inconsistent regarding whether it should be allowed in cases of rape or incest or to safeguard the health of the woman.
Obama noted such hypocrisy and said the supreme court’s decision this summer to end the constitutional right to abortion had been a wake-up call to many people. He warned: “If Republicans take back the House and the Senate, we could be one presidential election away from a nationwide ban on access to abortion.”
Democracy, too, is on the ballot, Obama said, as most Republicans are not even pretending that the rules apply to them any more. “They are just making stuff up … We have seen throughout history, we see now around the world what happens if we give up on democracy … When true democracy goes away, people get hurt.”
The ex-president had also come to stump for Stacey Abrams, a voting rights activist and former Democratic leader in the statehouse, who is bidding to become the first female African American governor in the nation’s history.
Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, is the 83rd white man in a row to occupy the the Georgia governor’s mansion. With the advantages of incumbency and a strong state economy, Kemp – who has signed a bill that would ban abortions six weeks after conception and imposed new voter restrictions – is leading in the polls.
Syd Janney, 70, said after Friday’s rally: “I would swim through alligator-infested waters to get to vote for Stacey Abrams. It is that important, as it is that Raphael Warnock stays in our Senate seat in Washington. It is essential to our way of life, to our belief in representative government.”
Obama’s appearance was the start of a five-state tour that will take him to the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. That last event, on the Saturday before the 8 November elections, will be alongside 79-year-old Biden, who – unlike Trump – has held back from holding rallies in some swing states lest he drag candidates down.
Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, told the Reuters news agency: “African American voters are going to be crucial to Democrats’ chances. Bringing in President Obama helps to underscore the importance of African American vote, while also exciting other voters.”
At the rally, Vonita Porch, 67, a retired management analyst, felt that Obama could make a difference. She said: “He’s the one to carry the party and he’s still the leader of the party. Democracy itself is definitely on the ballot, not just in Georgia but we’ve got to think about how everything is working in the world.”
Nathan and Allison Belzer had driven four hours from Savannah to be here. Allison, 51, a history professor, said: “I am the American who loves Joe Biden also but obviously not the same way that I love Obama.”
Nathan, a 50-year-old lawyer, suggested that Obama had a luxury that Biden does not. “It’s easier for an ex-president who’s been out of office to have a little bit of distance. He’s lost the baggage whereas Biden’s in the middle of it and still is carrying his baggage.”
But not everyone is convinced that Obama’s cavalry charge for the Democrats will succeed. In his first midterm election in 2010, the party lost control of the House in what he called a “shellacking”. In his second midterm election four years later, Republicans regained control of the Senate.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “He was good at getting out the vote for himself. He never really was able to pull Democrats across the finish line when he was president. Look at the disasters of his midterm elections in 2010 and 2014.
“All of this is so overplayed. Rallies don’t mean a damn thing. They may if you’re Donald Trump but they don’t produce votes that you would not get otherwise.”
Republicans appear confident that their focus on fears of crime, illegal immigration and an economic recession will overwhelm Democrats’ emphasis on defending abortion rights.
Beyond Georgia, Republicans have focused their efforts on flipping a Democratic Senate seat in Arizona or Nevada. Republicans are also expected to win enough seats to take over the House. Controlling both chambers would enable them to stonewall Biden’s agenda, block his executive branch nominees and launch investigations of his administration.
Such a scenario, and a potential Trump run for the White House in 2024, would leave Obama with little choice but to remain in the political arena in an effort to protect democracy. David Litt, an author and former Obama speechwriter, said: “The American story is much more uncertain than most of us thought it would be while we were working for him in the White House.
“Unlike other recent ex-presidents, he is a recent ex-president at a moment when the stakes for the country are extraordinarily high and when those stakes are imposed not from an external threat but from an internal one: authoritarianism that has been bubbling up. He has a set of pressures and an understanding of the stakes that his predecessors didn’t need to have in nearly the same way.”
At the Friday event, Obama also decried an erosion of basic civility and democratic norms in politics in America and around the world, adding: “I want to take a moment just to say a prayer for a friend of mine, Mr Paul Pelosi, who was attacked.”
Pelosi, the husband of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, was assaulted with a hammer at their home in San Francisco early on Friday morning. The incident was described by the authorities as “not random”. It stunned Washington and stoked rising fears about political violence ahead of the midterms.