Marking an impassioned return to the campaign trail, former President Barack Obama made a plea Thursday night to Virginia voters to vote for Democratic candidates in the state’s first elections to be held since last year’s presidential contest.
“We need you to take this seriously, because our democracy is at stake, and it’s at stake right here in Virginia,” Obama told a crowd of 7,500 people at the Richmond Coliseum. “You can’t sit this one out.”
As Obama spoke, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam — the Democratic nominee for governor in the commonwealth — sat on a barstool next to the 56-year-old former two-term president, basking in the glow of the former president’s political star power.
On the presumption that many Virginian’s in the room or watching on TV might be tuning in to the off-year election for the first time, Obama spent a considerable portion of his half-hour speech detailing Northam’s résumé as an Army physician and a pediatric neurologist.
Virginia’s lieutenant governor is locked in a tight race with Republican Ed Gillespie, a longtime political operative who went from high-powered lobbyist to chairman of the Republican National Committee to White House adviser under George W. Bush.
Obama did not mention President Trump by name in his remarks, but numerous times offered broad critiques of the current state of American politics that were clearly an indictment of the current White House occupant.
“Folks don’t feel good right now about what they see. They don’t feel as if our public life reflects our best,” Obama said. “Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we’ve got politics infecting our communities.”
He also said that “our politics just seems so divided and so angry and so nasty,” adding that the nation’s challenge is to “recapture” a more generous and civic spirit, in what was a reminiscence of the hopeful moment in 2008 that swept him to power. “Yes We Can,” Obama said, revisiting the famous slogan from his presidential campaigns.
Obama did call Gillespie out directly, in particular the anti-Northam TV ad run by his campaign that shows heavily tattooed Latino gang members with the words “Kill, Rape, Control” in large letters on the screen.
“There’s some voice, ominous, and everything’s king of dark, and it’s letting you know that somebody’s coming to get you,” Obama said, mocking the ad. He joked that nobody really believed that a physician who’d operated on veterans and children was “suddenly … cozying up to street gangs.”
But he turned serious when he noted that Gillespie has “gone on record in the past condemning the very same kind of rhetoric he’s using now.”
“What he’s really trying to deliver is fear. What he really believes is, if you scare enough voters, you might get enough votes to win an election,” Obama said.
He also tried to reassure moderate undecided voters who might be concerned about immigration that Northam understands the importance of keeping Virginians safe from violence, “but he also believes we can accomplish these things without fanning anti-immigrant sentiment that makes none of us safer.”
The former president also talked extensively about a hot-button issue that has been trouble for Northam: The debate over Confederate monuments. He did not say whether he believes monuments should be moved from public squares to museums, or taken down entirely. Instead, he recast the argument as one between those who seek to unite and those who want to divide the country.
He introduced the subject by noting that on his mother’s side, he was a distant relative of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
“Think about that. I’ll bet he’s spinning in his grave,” Obama said to laughter. But as he went on, Obama was at his most passionate when expounding on the need to “claim all of our history, the good and the bad.”
“We can acknowledge that Thomas Jefferson, one of Virginia’s most famous sons, owned and sold slaves. That’s not disputable. And we can also acknowledge that he wrote the words, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Obama said.
And his voice cracked and grew hoarse as he shouted: “And we can recognize that even if our past is not perfect, we can honor the constitutional ideals that have allowed us to come this far, and to keep moving toward a more perfect union. That’s what America is. That’s who we are.”
In what amounted to a rallying cry and a political blueprint for all Democrats running in midterm elections, Obama repeatedly returned to the theme of hope.
“Why are we deliberately trying to misunderstand each other, and be cruel to each other, and put each other down,” Obama said with exasperation. “That’s not who we are.”
But much of his speech was devoted to rousing Democratic voters to recognize the importance of what is traditionally a low-turnout affair.
“I hate to say it … off-year elections, Democrats sometimes, y’all get a little sleepy,” Obama said. “You get a little complacent. Folks wake up and they’re surprised. ‘How come we can’t get things through Congress? How come we can’t get through things the state house?’”
He answered the theoretical question with a rebuke: “Because you slept through the election!”
“I don’t want to hear folks complaining and not doing something about it,” he said. “It’s great that you hash tag and meme, but I need you to vote.”
It was Obama’s first entry back into electoral politics since leaving the presidency. He has kept a relatively low profile in the first nine months of his post-presidency, though he did issue a statement in June criticizing Republican efforts to repeal his signature health care legislation, and spoke out against it again in September.
Obama has also appeared at fundraisers for the party, for events related to his presidential library and foundation, and for an effort to push back Republican control of the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional district lines.
Before appearing with Northam and a full slate of Democratic politicians at the Richmond Coliseum, Obama campaigned in New Jersey with Phil Murphy, the Democrat running for governor to fill the position being vacated by Gov. Chris Christie, who is limited to two terms by the state constitution.
“All of us have a responsibility to make our democracy work,” Obama said. “You cannot complain if you didn’t vote,” he added.