PHILADELPHIA (REUTERS, AFP) - Former United States president Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail on Wednesday (Oct 21), launching a blistering attack on Mr Donald Trump, with less than two weeks to go before the Republican President’s Election Day face-off with Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Speaking at a drive-in rally in Philadelphia on behalf of Mr Biden, his former vice-president, Mr Obama offered his fiercest critique yet of his successor, taking aim at Mr Trump’s divisive rhetoric and his track record in the Oval Office.
“He hasn’t shown any interest in doing the work or helping anybody but himself,” Mr Obama said of Mr Trump.
Mr Obama, who governed for two terms and remains one of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party, blasted Mr Trump for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, noting that the President himself had fallen victim to the virus.
“Donald Trump isn’t suddenly going to protect all of us,” he said. “He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself.”
He said Mr Trump had proved himself “incapable of taking the job seriously”.
“This is not a reality show. This is reality,” Mr Obama said.
“And the rest of us have had to live with the consequences of him proving himself incapable of taking the job seriously.”
Urging voters not to be complacent, he warned of the errors in opinion surveys before Mr Trump’s shock 2016 victory.
“We can’t be complacent. I don’t care about the polls,” Mr Obama said. “There were a whole bunch of polls last time. Didn’t work out. Because a whole bunch of folks stayed at home. And got lazy and complacent. Not this time. Not this election.”
Mr Obama’s appearance filled a gap left by Mr Biden, who has stayed at home in Delaware since Monday for meetings and preparation ahead of his Thursday debate with Mr Trump in Nashville, Tennessee.
The drive-in rally was held in the carpark of Citizens Bank Park, the baseball stadium in Philadelphia, with the city’s skyline visible in the distance.
It was the largest event of its kind that the Biden campaign has staged amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The almost 280 vehicles were spread throughout the lot, with big screens placed to allow attendees to see the former president.
With a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showing Mr Biden with just a four percentage point edge in Pennsylvania, Mr Obama warned Democrats against complacency.
“We’ve got to turn out like never before,” he said. “We cannot leave any doubt in this election.”
Four years ago, Mr Obama participated in a rally in Philadelphia with then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the day before the election, only to see Mr Trump narrowly take the state. The Biden campaign considers winning there a top priority.
In remarks at an evening rally in Gastonia, North Carolina, Mr Trump briefly mentioned Mr Obama, noting that he had supported Mrs Clinton in her losing effort.
"It was nobody who campaigned harder for Crooked Hillary than Obama, right?" he said.
North Carolina is another battleground state where opinion polls show a tight race. Mr Biden's running mate Kamala Harris was also in the state on Wednesday to mobilise voters in Asheville and Charlotte.
Mr Obama won North Carolina in 2008, but lost it in his 2012 campaign. Mr Trump won it in 2016.
Mr Trump argued that coronavirus-related restrictions were harming the state’s economy and complained that Democrats and the news media were overly pre-occupied with the pandemic.
"All you hear is Covid, Covid," the President said. "That’s all they put on because they want to scare the hell out of everyone."
Earlier in the day, Mr Obama, one of the Democratic Party's biggest stars and a frequent target of Mr Trump's attacks, joined a roundtable discussion with Philadelphia black male politicians and community and religious leaders.
"It's good to see you," Mr Obama said, as he entered to applause from the 15 guests.
“I’ve never lost hope over these last four years,” he said. “I’ve been mad. I’ve been frustrated, but I haven’t lost hope, and the reason is because I never expected progress to move directly in a straight line.”
He followed up the roundtable with a stop at a local canvassing site.
Americans are voting early at a record pace this year, with more than 41 million ballots cast both via mail and in person ahead of Election Day on Nov 3, on concerns about the coronavirus and to make sure their votes are counted.
The last days of campaigning are taking place amid a surge in new cases of Covid-19 and hospitalisations in battleground states, including North Carolina and Pennsylvania but also Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.
Pennsylvania has averaged 1,500 new cases a day over the past week, a level it has not seen since April, according to a Reuters analysis. North Carolina is averaging 2,000 new cases a day over the past week, its highest level ever.
Polling shows a majority of voters are disappointed with the way Mr Trump has handled the pandemic, which he has repeatedly said would disappear on its own.
On a call organised by the Biden campaign and Texas Democrats on Wednesday, several Texas Republicans urged fellow conservatives to vote for Mr Biden, citing the coronavirus crisis as well as Mr Biden's character.
"This is not a decision I took lightly. I love the GOP, and I love most GOP officials. But I love my country more," said Mr Jacob Monty, a Republican immigration lawyer who resigned from Mr Trump's national Hispanic advisory council in 2016.
Pennsylvania in the spotlight
Mr Biden and Mr Trump are scheduled to meet in their second and final debate on Thursday night, giving the Republican an opportunity to change the trajectory of a race that Mr Biden is leading in national polls.
Mr Biden's campaign manager, Ms Jen O'Malley Dillon, has warned staff and supporters that she sees a far closer race in the 17 states the campaign considers battlegrounds than is suggested by the national polls showing he has a wide lead.
Mr Biden believes he must win his birth state of Pennsylvania, which Democrats narrowly lost to Mr Trump in 2016, and has visited it more than any other state during the campaign.
Mr Trump has gained ground in Pennsylvania, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday, which showed the challenger leading by 49 per cent to 45 per cent, slightly narrower than a week earlier.
"If we win Pennsylvania, we win the whole thing," Mr Trump said on Tuesday at a rally in Erie, in the state's north-western corner.
The record early vote so far represents about 30 per cent of the total ballots cast in 2016, according to the University of Florida's US Elections Project.
Opinion polls and voting returns indicate that many of those early voters typically do not participate in elections but are coming off the sidelines this year to back Mr Biden - or vote out Mr Trump.
Mr Trump, who has resumed a crowded schedule of rallies since recovering from his recent bout with Covid-19, will appear on Wednesday night at an airport rally in Gastonia, North Carolina.