As the lights came down on a packed arena in downtown Philadelphia on Saturday evening, the crowd roared and waved their illuminated cell phones in the air.
The 7,500 people had come to Temple University not for a concert but to take part in an all-star Democratic political rally aimed at limiting potentially bruising losses for the party in next week’s midterm elections.
Polls show Republicans on track to take back the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate, which is why one sitting and one former Democratic president took to the stage in the key swing state of Pennsylvania.
“This crowd’s so wild I think they can hear us in Latrobe,” US president Joe Biden told the audience of mostly students, union workers and local supporters, in a reference to the small city about 250 miles west of Philadelphia where former president Donald Trump held his own rally on Saturday night.
“They’re going to hear us, they’re going to hear us on Tuesday,” Biden shouted.
The president has largely shied away from the campaign trail in recent months amid persistently low approval ratings. The buoyant mood in Philadelphia on Saturday was in large part thanks to the man Biden shared the stage with: his one-time boss, Barack Obama.
The former president has criss-crossed the country in recent days to campaign with Senate candidates in a handful of hotly contested races that will determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress for the next two years. Obama had come to Pennsylvania to campaign for John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant-governor and the Democratic candidate for US Senate there.
Fetterman was once odds-on favourite in Pennsylvania but his campaign has faltered in recent months after the candidate suffered a stroke. His well-funded Republican opponent Mehmet Oz has also run an effective campaign focused largely on issues such as crime and inflation. Fetterman on Saturday made light of his medical problems, saying: “Anybody recovering from a stroke, the worst thing you have to do is go up before Barack Obama.”
A Fetterman campaign staffer described Obama as the “best closer in politics” — and nearly 14 years to the day after Obama was first elected president, Saturday’s rally underscored the enduring star power of the 44th US president.
Earlier in the day at the Temple University student centre, students asked each other if they were off to “see Obama” with little mention of the incumbent president, Fetterman or Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor who also took to the stage on Saturday evening.
In a roughly 35-minute speech, following remarks from Biden, Shapiro and Fetterman, Obama leaned into the optimistic messages and rhetorical flourishes that first made him famous as a state senator from Illinois. But he also struck a sombre tone, warning of the possibility of Democratic defeats next week.
“I want people to be clear. Midterms are always hard for whichever party is in the White House,” Obama said, adding: “I can tell you from experience that midterms matter, a lot.”
Two years into his first term in office, Obama suffered a self-described “shellacking” at the 2010 midterms as Democrats took big losses. Four years later, midway through Obama’s second term, the Republicans held on to the House of Representatives and seized control of the Senate.
“Sometimes I can’t help imagine what it would have been like if enough people had turned out to vote in those elections,” Obama said.
The former president’s remarks underlined how Democrats are focusing on a “get out the vote” message to mobilise their core base of supporters with just days to go until the midterms.
While early voting data has suggested voter enthusiasm in some pockets of the country, Democrats are counting on strong turnout from the broad coalition that helped Biden defeat Trump in 2020 if they are to win hard-fought contests, especially in swing states such as Pennsylvania. That includes students — who are less likely to cast ballots than older voters — as well as African-Americans in urban areas such as Philadelphia.
“If you’re angry and frustrated right now, don’t complain. Go vote,” Obama said. “Don’t tune out. Vote. Get off your couch and do what? Put down your phones and do what? Vote. Vote for Josh Shapiro. Vote for John Fetterman.”
But even Obama’s fiercest supporters acknowledge his star power has its limits. Back in 2016, Obama joined Hillary Clinton for a big, high-energy rally in Philadelphia on the eve of an election day in which she lost to Trump in Pennsylvania by a razor-thin margin of less than 50,000 votes.
John Douglas, a 72-year-old African-American Vietnam war veteran from west Philadelphia who attended Saturday’s rally, said he was a “Democrat through and through” but worried Fetterman would lose to Oz next week.
“That is why I am trying to get all of the people I know, and to try to get those people that they know, to come out to vote,” he said.
Meanwhile on the other side of the state, Trump was casting the midterm elections as the first chance for voters to arrest the terminal decline of a once great nation.
“We are a failing nation,” he said, before listing inflation, crime, illegal immigration, suppression of free speech and a host of other things that had spun out of control since he left office.
The ex-president’s endorsement helped Oz — a former cardiothoracic surgeon turned television personality — secure the Republican party nomination earlier this year.
Until Saturday, Oz had largely sought to distance himself from Trump in the general election in part to appeal to moderate voters in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia suburbs. Opinion polls suggest that strategy may be working: the latest RealClearPolitics average shows Oz leading Fetterman by 0.1 points, within the margin of error.
On Saturday night, Trump once again hinted that he would soon announce his intention to contest the 2024 presidential election. He called up a graphic which showed him far ahead of his nearest Republican rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who Trump referred as Ron “DeSanctimonious.”
“We are a nation that has lost its way,” he told the crowd. “Just two years ago we were a great nation and we will soon be a great nation again.”