Former President Barack Obama on Saturday sought to sway voters who are worried about inflation, warning in two key Midwestern states that Republicans seeking control of Congress have no plans to rein in prices and could target social safety net programs.
Campaigning alongside Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Detroit, and later Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes in Milwaukee, Obama acknowledged the economic realities Americans face. But he said handing power on Capitol Hill to the GOP would do little to solve those problems.
“In your gut, you should have a sense: Who cares about you?” he said in Wisconsin.
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In a moment that rapidly spread across social media, Obama lambasted Barnes’ opponent, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who is seeking a third term. He cited Johnson’s past comments comparing the management of Social Security to a “Ponzi scheme” and criticized Johnson’s vote for the 2017 GOP-led tax overhaul.
“Some of you here are on Social Security. Some of your parents are on Social Security. Some of your grandparents are on Social Security. You know why they have Social Security?” Obama said. “Because they worked for it. They worked hard jobs for it. They have chapped hands for it. They had long hours and sore backs and bad knees to get that Social Security.”
“And if Ron Johnson does not understand that – if he understands giving tax breaks for private planes more than he understands making sure that seniors who’ve worked all their lives are able to retire with dignity and respect – he’s not the person who’s thinking about you and knows you and sees you, and he should not be your senator from Wisconsin,” the former President said.
Obama is traveling to some of the most important midterm battlegrounds in the days before the November 8 midterm elections. In addition to the stops in Michigan and Wisconsin, Obama also held an event Friday in Georgia. He will visit Nevada on Tuesday and then hold multiple events in Pennsylvania alongside President Joe Biden on Saturday.
All five states feature hotly contested governor’s races, and all but Michigan also have Senate contests that will play a role in determining which party controls the evenly divided chamber.
‘They’re not interested in solving problems’
The former President on Saturday portrayed the modern GOP as unserious and uncompromising, describing the party – with few exceptions – as beholden to former President Donald Trump’s whims.
“Own the libs and getting Donald Trump’s approval. That’s their agenda,” Obama said in Milwaukee.
“They’re not interested in solving problems. They’re interested in making you angry, and then finding somebody to blame,” he said. “And they’re hoping that’ll distract you from the fact that they don’t have any answers of their own.”
Obama’s message mirrored Biden’s insistence that Republicans have not offered proposals to rein in inflation and his warnings that GOP congressional majorities would target popular safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.
It also echoed what former President Bill Clinton said at a campaign stop for Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in New York on Saturday. Clinton said that the GOP’s midterm slogan should be: “This is a real problem. Let’s vote for somebody who will make it worse.”
The difference is location: Obama is hitting the campaign trail in places other Democrats can’t visit without provoking costly political backlash. Biden, whose approval rating is underwater in CNN polls conducted by SSRS across key midterm states, is largely limiting his role to fundraisers, though he will travel to Pennsylvania – his state of birth – in the election’s closing weekend. Other figures, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, can energize progressives but have limited appeal beyond core supporters. Obama, though, remains a national Democratic figure who can motivate the party’s base while also appealing to moderate voters.
Obama described inflation as a global challenge that resulted from a coronavirus pandemic that “threw off supply and demand,” as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine, which he said has driven up gas prices.
“When gas prices go up, when grocery prices go up, that takes a bite out of people’s paycheck. That hurts,” Obama said. “But the question you should be asking is: Who’s going to do something about it? Republicans are having a field day running ads talking about it, but what is their actual solution to it?”
“I’ll tell you: They want to gut Social Security, then Medicare, and then give some more tax breaks to the wealthy,” he said. “And the reason I know that’s their agenda is, listen, that’s their answer to everything.”
That theme – that Republicans have lost interest in compromising, keeping the government running or even acknowledging basic realities, including the outcome of the 2020 presidential election – echoed through Obama’s remarks in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Gone were the days of former first lady Michelle Obama’s insistence that “when they go low, we go high.” Obama acknowledged Saturday that his wife is discouraged by today’s political landscape. “I’m usually a little more optimistic,” he said in Michigan.
He contrasted the moment the United States now faces with the early stages of his own political career.
He described losing a 2000 effort to unseat incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush in a Democratic primary – the only time Obama was defeated at the ballot box.
“You know what I didn’t do, though? I didn’t claim the election was rigged. I didn’t try to stop votes from being counted. I didn’t incite a mob to storm the Capitol,” Obama said in Detroit. “I took my lumps. I figured out why my campaign hadn’t connected, and I tried to run a better race the next time, because that’s how our democracy is supposed to work.”
Obama described driving around Illinois as a Senate candidate in 2004, meeting people at diners in conservative areas of the state and having cordial conversations.
He pointed to the example of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, who delivered a gracious concession speech after losing the 2008 presidential election to Obama. And he said that while he didn’t like the outcome of the 2016 presidential race, he stayed up until 3 a.m. to call Trump and congratulate him, and proceed with a peaceful transfer of power.
In Milwaukee, Obama even joked about birtherism – the racist conspiracy theory fueled by Trump that Obama was not born in the United States.
Obama compared himself to Barnes, saying the Senate nominee, who is also Wisconsin lieutenant governor, faces a barrage of Republican ads portraying him as out of touch with the state’s values “just because Mandela’s named Mandela; just because he’s a Democrat with a funny name.”
“It sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? So Mandela,” Obama said, turning to Barnes onstage, “get ready to dig up that birth certificate.”
“Remember when that was the craziest thing people said? That wasn’t that long ago. People were like, ‘Wow, that was some crazy stuff,’” Obama said. “Now, it doesn’t even make the top 10 list of crazy.”
A ‘dangerous climate’
Obama saved his sharpest criticism for Johnson, saying the GOP senator had a “gold medal” in trafficking conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
In remarks earlier this month, Johnson appeared to downplay the violence from the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol and noted that the rioters “did teach us how you can use flagpoles, that kind of stuff, as weapons.” A campaign spokesperson later said the senator’s comments were meant to compare the methods used by racial justice protesters in the summer of 2020 with the January 6 rioters.
In a debate with Barnes in October, Johnson said, “I immediately and forcefully and repeatedly condemned the violence on January 6.”
In Michigan, Obama warned that a “dangerous climate” was developing as a result of incendiary rhetoric in the United States – “when we don’t just disagree with people, but we start demonizing them making wild crazy allegations about them.”
“If elected officials don’t do more to explicitly reject that kind of rhetoric, if they tacitly support or encourage their supporters to stand up outside voting places armed with guns dressed in tactical gear, more people can get hurt,” Obama said.
In a moment Obama used as an exclamation point for his comments about the direction of the GOP, a protester in the audience interrupted him by shouting. That prompted the former President to respond, “So, this is this is what I’m saying.”
“There is a process that we set up in our democracy right now. I’m talking, you’ll have a chance to talk sometime,” he said to the protester. “And this is part of the point that I want to make: Just basic civility and courtesy works, and that’s what we want to try to encourage.”
The protester was quickly drowned out by chants of “Obama!” from the crowd.
CNN’s Donald Judd, Omar Jimenez and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.