ERIE, Pa. — For nearly four years, Donald Trump has blamed Barack Obama for everything: for a lack of coronavirus equipment, for an alleged spying operation targeting Trump’s campaign, even for a faulty White House air conditioning system.
And on Tuesday night, Trump, the current president, finally got his chance to face off almost directly with Obama, the former president, in the swing state of Pennsylvania.
For once, he didn’t take the bait. Regardless, Trump’s presence at the rally in Erie was symbolic, as it represented one of a trio of counties in the state that backed Obama in 2012 before swinging to Trump in 2016. His remarks also came hours before Obama was set to speak on Wednesday at a socially distanced car rally in deep blue Philadelphia.
And while Obama’s upcoming appearance didn’t get a Trump mention Tuesday night, the president has been publicly musing about Obama’s event ever since it was revealed the ex-president would be hitting campaign trail for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. During a Friday night rally in Georgia, Trump recalled the moment aides told him Obama would be rallying for Biden, much as he did for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“They said, ‘Sir, we have bad news,’” Trump said recently. “‘What’s the bad news?’ Obama’s going to start campaigning for Sleepy Joe. I said, ‘Is that good or bad? Why is it bad?’ Because he campaigned harder for Hillary than she did. He was very ineffective as a campaigner. … So I think that’s good news.”
Tuesday night, while Trump avoided an Obama mention, he didn’t spare his other enemies during the chilly outdoor rally at the Erie airport. Thousands of supporters bundled up in coats and hats — about half wearing masks — chanted “four more years!” as Trump walked down the steps of Air Force One.
Once Trump took to the podium, he swiftly blasted Biden’s son, Hunter, accusing him of earning millions of dollars in China and Ukraine while his father was vice president — vague allegations that have not been substantiated with concrete evidence. And when Trump’s microphone abruptly cut out, the president quipped that the brief outage was likely caused by “crooked Hillary.”
It’s no surprise Trump and Obama are both appearing in Pennsylvania. The northeast state has become critical in the race to claim the White House on Nov. 3. In 2016, Trump became the first Republican to win the state since 1988 when turnout was higher than expected. But recent polls show Biden, who spent part of his childhood in the state, could win it back.
“If we win Pennsylvania, we win the whole thing,” Trump told the crowd Tuesday before mocking Biden for leaving the state and trying to claim Pennsylvania as his own.
“It’s not his home state. He left you when he was nine, right? I’m not blaming him for that,” Trump said. “But you know he likes to go, ‘Oh yeah, yeah it’s my home state.’ It’s not his home state. I actually went to college in Pennsylvania.”
In 2016, some white working class residents who had grown frustrated with the Democratic Party were drawn to Trump by the way he talked about bringing back jobs to the state. But Trump’s promises have not necessarily materialized. While the state added manufacturing jobs in 2017 and early 2018, it has been shedding them since October 2018. And with the pandemic-driven economic decline, the state has 600,000 fewer jobs overall than when Trump took office.
Still, Trump aides and allies say they feel confident the president can win the state a second time, even during the coronavirus pandemic, by touting economic policies like tax cuts and trade deals. On Tuesday night, Trump hit those points. He unveiled a video package on a massive screen behind him meant to make the case that Biden would eliminate fracking — a method for extracting oil and gas used in Pennsylvania — even though Biden has explicitly said he would not take such a step.
“Since 2016, Donald Trump has not changed one bit,” said former Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.). “He is the same person that he was in 2016 when he won Pennsylvania. But the Democrat party has changed since then. Their far shift to the left does not resonate with the Kennedy Democrats that are here in Pennsylvania.”
In his wide-ranging speech, Trump touched on a variety of accomplishments and didn’t shy away from talking about the coronavirus pandemic, telling the crowd that the country was rounding the corner of the pandemic with a vaccine on its way and that Pennsylvania had been shut down long enough.
“You know what we want? Normal life,” he said.
National Republicans boast about their presence in Pennsylvania since 2016, contacting more than 11.5 million voters, holding 4,300 training sessions and holding 5,400 MAGA meet-ups with 50,000 attendees. In the last four years, Republicans have registered more than 200,000 more voters, closing the registration gap with Democrats to 700,000, the lowest margin in two decades.
Yet Democrats recently scored a win in the state on voting rules after the Supreme Court decided not to block a Pennsylvania court ruling allowing mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted even if they arrive up to three days later. Mail-in votes are expected to favor Democrats in the state.
And Biden has also traveled to every media market in Pennsylvania, including areas that Trump won by more than 30 points, according to a Biden campaign official.
“Our strategy hinges on turning out our base voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, while also building on Democratic gains with key voters like women and seniors, while also shrinking the margins and winning back voters in places Trump won in 2016,” the official said.
Separately, Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, has visited the Philadelphia suburbs twice in the last month. And Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, visited Philadelphia last month. The campaign has also focused on reaching labor union members, hiring a labor outreach director to try to reach the 700,000 Pennsylvania union members with literature drops and phone banks, the official said.
Yet with Biden laying low in the run-up to his debate Thursday with Trump, the campaign trail in Pennsylvania is essentially Trump vs. Obama.
Trump likes to say Obama didn’t want to endorse Biden because Obama “knows he’s mentally shot.” But while he largely stayed out of the Democratic presidential primary, Obama has vocally endorsed Biden during the general election, urging voters to support Biden because “our democracy” is at stake.
“He made me a better president,” Obama said during his speech at the Democratic National Convention. “He’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, said Obama will be a crucial surrogate for Biden. Obama, Casey said, can explain how he worked with Biden to restore the economy following the 2008 recession, and show how that work will apply to resurrecting the post-pandemic economy.
“No one can validate Joe Biden’s experience and his ability to do the job better than Barack Obama can,” Casey said in an interview Tuesday.
With Obama’s emergence, Trump has stepped up the attacks on his predecessor.
Trump has criticized Obama for joining a nuclear agreement with Iran; for allowing immigrants to cross the southern border illegally; and for entering what he calls unfair trade deals. He’s also made more personal comments accusing Obama of undeservedly winning a Nobel Peace Prize. (Trump has long mused that he should win the award)
And Trump often cites a Gallup poll from this month showing 56 percent of Americans saying they are better off today than they were four years ago, when Obama and Biden were in charge of the country.
Last month, a crowd at Trump’s rally in Nevada even chanted “lock him up” after the president baselessly accused Obama of “spying” on the 2016 Trump campaign — a riff on the 2016 Trump rally chant aimed at Clinton.