Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Barack Obama
WASHINGTON — For two men whose political legacies are deeply intertwined, the contrast between Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his former boss, President Barack Obama, was a sharp one on Tuesday.
In Warm Springs, Georgia, famous for its healing waters, Biden made his closing argument for election, pledging to “unite the nation.” He quoted Pope Francis on the higher purpose of politics and promised that “as a people and a country, we can overcome a devastating virus … heal a suffering world … restore our soul and save our country.”
Four hundred miles south of Warm Springs, in Orlando, Florida, Obama made his own closing argument for Biden’s election at a drive-in rally.
Biden “is not going to screw up testing. He’s not going to call scientists idiots. He’s not going to host a super spreader event at the White House, and then take it on a tour all across the country!” said Obama, whose critique of Trump only got sharper from there.
“Our current president, he whines that “60 Minutes” is too tough. Do you think he is going to stand up to dictators? He thinks Leslie Stahl is a bully!”
“This is not normal behavior. We wouldn’t tolerate it from a coworker. We wouldn’t tolerate it from a football coach. … Even ‘Florida Man’ wouldn’t be doing some of this stuff!” Obama exclaimed, name-dropping a popular Twitter account that pokes fun at bizarre news stories in the state.
At first glance, it might seem like Biden “went high,” appealing to Americans’ better angels, while Obama “went low,” appealing to people’s desire to see Trump mocked the same way he mocks his opponents.
But there’s more to it than that.
With a week to go before Election Day and more than 60 million ballots already cast, the three members of the Biden “A-team” — the former vice president; his running mate, Kamala Harris, and now, in the homestretch, Obama — are each delivering a slightly different message but one that is aimed squarely at a key voting bloc that could swing the election.
Biden is speaking primarily to crossover Republicans and independent voters, both of whom are key to winning states that Trump won in 2016, such as Georgia, Iowa and Michigan.
Meanwhile, Obama’s message is aimed at younger voters, precisely the ones who would recognize his “Florida Man” quip, at Black voters and at Hispanic voters, who cheered every time Obama said, “Si se puede” in Orlando on Tuesday.
Harris, the third member of the A-team, has been strategically deployed in recent days to appeal to still more distinct constituencies: Black and urban voters in the Midwest and in the Southwest.
A Trump campaign spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Biden’s final week strategy. But the president has been relentless in his criticism of Biden and increasingly, Obama.
Taken together, the Biden campaign’s three different messages and their respective messengers represent a cohesive and aggressive strategy, one that reflects both their awareness of where Biden’s vulnerabilities lie and a striking degree of confidence in a hugely expanded electoral map.
On Friday, Harris hosted a drive-in rally at Morehouse College, an elite, historically black college in Atlanta. As the first Black woman ever to appear on a major party ticket, Harris, who is multiracial but identifies as Black, is making history in a year when Black Americans have risen up to demand equal protections on a scale not seen since the Civil Rights movement 60 years ago.
U.S. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris speaks during a campaign event in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., October 25, 2020.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters
On Saturday, Harris visited Cleveland, Ohio, where she decried legal efforts by the Trump campaign and the Republican Party to limit voters’ access to the polls. Harris called on Black voters to overcome these obstacles in part to honor the legacy of civil rights leaders who fought, and died, for ballot access during the last century.
“Why are they going through this effort (to suppress voter turnout)?” Harris said of the GOP. “The answer is because they know our power. They know our power. They know when we vote, things change.”
The following day, Harris took the same message of Black political empowerment to Michigan, where she spoke Sunday at a drive-in service at the Triumph Church, before crisscrossing the state for the rest of the day.
Black voters in Midwestern cities are an absolutely critical group for Democrats, as evidenced by the 2016 collapse of the so-called “Blue Wall,” a line of solidly Democratic states that President Donald Trump won by tiny margins.
Post-election analysis showed that in several of those states, most notably Michigan and Pennsylvania, the number of urban voters who sat out the election was greater than Trump’s total margin of victory, suggesting that if these voters had turned out for Democrat Hillary Clinton, she would most likely have won the state.
This week, Harris is going to the Southwest. She was in Nevada on Tuesday and will be in Arizona on Thursday and Texas on Friday.
Democrats have done well in Nevada for the past decade. But concerns this year about possibly weak Democratic turnout amid the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with Trump’s decision to target the state, have made it less reliably blue than polls suggest.
Arizona and Texas are two states where the suburbs around major urban centers such as Phoenix and Houston have grown increasingly diverse in the past 5 years, giving Democrats their first real shot in decades of flipping these two red states blue.
A recent poll in Texas even showed Biden leading Trump by 3 percentage points, although polling averages overall still give Trump an advantage.
The former president has appeared at three major events for Biden in the past week, one in Philadelphia on Wednesday, one in Miami on Saturday and Tuesday’s speech in Orlando. He has also clearly enjoyed returning to the campaign stage, where he appears relaxed and happy — two sentiments that are notably absent from the campaign this year on both Biden’s side and Trump’s, casualties of the multiple crises facing the nation.
Obama has reportedly told friends he is eager to assume the role of “attack dog,” in political parlance, for his dear friend and trusted advisor over two terms in the White House.
It’s a role reversal of sorts, because swinging punches at the other guy is a job typically reserved for vice presidential nominees.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama reacts as he hosts a pre-election drive-in rally to campaign on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee and his former Vice President Joe Biden in Orlando, Florida, October 27, 2020.
Eve Edelheit | Reuters
But while Harris has been forceful in her critiques of the Trump administration’s failure to get a handle on the coronavirus pandemic and its undermining of civil rights, it’s difficult to imagine the California senator taking the same gleeful shots at Trump’s temperament and his Twitter habit as Obama has.
Here, too, Obama is working to shore up support for Biden among constituencies that Democrats acknowledge may not turn out for Biden in the same numbers as they did for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Young registered voters are notoriously difficult to turn out in huge numbers, and there’s an evergreen debate among Democratic strategists over how much energy campaigns should put into their “get out the vote” efforts for young voters. But Obama’s campaigns defied the odds. Data from the 2008 election showed that a higher share of young voters turned out that year than in any presidential election since 1972.
The Biden campaign has yet to release additional guidance about Obama’s schedule in the coming days, but it’s widely expected that he and Biden will appear at an event together sometime over the weekend, as this week’s road show reaches its crescendo.
While his top two surrogates maximize their reach, Biden is doubling down on a somber, emotional message of hope, unity and healing, exemplified by his speech in Warm Springs on Tuesday.
Biden has maintained his lead over Trump nationally throughout the campaign and either holds a slim lead or is tied in the major swing states. But it was still noteworthy that Biden decided to spend the day Tuesday in Georgia, a state won by a Democratic presidential nominee just once in the past 40 years.
Yet for Biden, delivering his speech in a traditionally red state added gravitas to his promise to unite a bitterly divided country.
Compared with either Obama or Harris, Biden spent little time on Tuesday attacking Trump. Instead, Biden told his own biographical story of hardship, and he offered empathy and hope to the families of the more than 220,000 Americans who have died this year from Covid-19.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at The Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Warm Springs, Georgia on October 27, 2020.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images
“These are all historic, painful crises,” Biden said early in the address. “The insidious virus. Economic anguish. Systemic discrimination. Any one of them could have rocked a nation. Yet we’ve been hit by all three at once.”
The second half of the speech was more optimistic but still far from sunny. Recovering from these crises and putting the nation back on the right path “will take all of us. Red states and blue states, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals,” said Biden. “And I believe we can do it.”
While Biden’s speech might be humble, where Biden is taking this message of unity in the final week of the campaign amounts to a show of political confidence: Biden is spending the week exclusively in states that were won by Trump in 2016.
After spending Tuesday in Georgia, Biden will be in Florida on Thursday and Michigan on Saturday, his campaign has announced. Biden himself told reporters he will also be visiting Iowa and Wisconsin later in the week, although the campaign has not yet released details about the trips.
Asked on Monday whether his final week schedule reflects his confidence in the outcome of next Tuesday’s vote, Biden replied, “I’m not overconfident about anything.”