Three presidents, one sitting and two former, will descend on Pennsylvania Saturday for a final midterm push that underscores the stakes in the nation’s most watched Senate races.
For President Joe Biden, who will make a rare appearance with former President Barack Obama in Philadelphia to promote Democratic Gov. John Fetterman, Pennsylvania will be a political stress test in his hometown, where he has traveled 20 times. since he took office.
For former President Donald Trump, who is rallying outside Pittsburgh in Latrobe, Dr. Mehmet Oz’s handpicked candidates can prove his enduring viability in a commonwealth he narrowly lost in 2020.
The implications extend beyond next week’s election. As Trump prepares to announce his third presidential bid, potentially in the coming weeks, Biden’s aides are taking their first steps toward a re-election campaign. Over the course of several hours on Saturday evening, the dynamics of a potential rematch in 2020 will be revealed.
The moment marks a historical anomaly. Former presidents typically have little involvement in day-to-day politics, mostly avoiding direct criticism of the men who once held office. No past president has returned to win the White House since Grover Cleveland in 1892.
The convergence of Pennsylvania’s presidents, each warning of dire consequences if the opposing party prevails, reflects the changed rules Trump brought about when he took office nearly six years ago, quickly handing Obama trumped-up charges of espionage and general criminality.
Biden, who spent much of his first year in office trying to avoid mentioning Trump’s name, is no longer so circumspect. He called out “Trump and all his Trumpies” at a rally in California this week and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis identified him as “Trump incarnate” at a fundraiser outside Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday. At his rallies, Trump plays a hoax video reel to cast his successor as a gaffe-playing senior citizen, but he hasn’t gone after Obama that often.
Obama, meanwhile, has delivered his harshest criticism of the cast of Trump-endorsed candidates, many of whom deny the results of the 2020 election and have been modeled after the 45th president.
“It doesn’t work just because someone was on TV. It turns out, being president or governor is about more than neat lines and good lighting,” Obama told Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a former local news anchor, in Arizona last week.
The Pennsylvania senate and gubernatorial contests are the only races in this year’s midterm cycle that Biden has repeatedly entered. In other high-stakes races, candidates have kept their distance from a president with underwater approval ratings.
That hasn’t been true for Obama, who has been popular among Democrats in tight races. In the final weeks of the campaign, Obama has held loud rallies in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada – all states that Biden has avoided in recent months as the candidates work to halt the Republican push.
It’s a 180-degree turn from the midterm cycles during Obama’s presidency, when Biden ventured into more states — including conservative-leaning districts — where the president was seen as a drag on Democratic candidates.
Biden is hardly upset or even surprised that Obama has been more evenly matched than him on the campaign trail this year, according to officials. He has discussed a number of races with his former boss and believes Obama’s message resonates with voters and complements his own.
However, their joint appearance on Saturday will only serve to underscore their different styles and political skills, a comparison that some Democrats say favors Obama.
“I know you always ask me how we are doing. I think we will win this time. I feel very good about our chances,” Biden told reporters Friday in California.
The president has been upbeat about the Democrats’ chances next week, even as many Democrats are increasingly worried about their own party’s chances. His campaign schedule — stumping for candidates in blue states in closer-than-expected races — is itself a sign of the Democrats’ weaknesses.
In the final days of the campaign, Biden has traveled mostly to blue states he won, but where Democrats are running closer races than expected. He stopped in New Mexico, California and Illinois before hitting Pennsylvania on Saturday, where he will campaign with embattled New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Sunday. He will spend the eve of the election in Maryland.
People familiar with Biden’s thinking say he accepts that not all Democratic candidates will welcome him as a replacement while his approval ratings remain in the water. And he told fellow Democrats that he respects their political intuition when it comes to their races.
But he has grown frustrated with coverage that suggests he is a political albatross, according to people familiar with the conversations, arguing that his policies — when properly explained — are popular with voters.
Compared to Obama and Trump, Biden has held fewer of his party’s campaign rallies this midterm cycle. Most of the engagements in the past month have been official events, sometimes to crowds of only a few dozen.
His rallies have started to draw larger crowds in the final days of the campaign. Six hundred people were evacuated from an event in Southern California on Friday, according to the White House. And when Biden was holding a rally with Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, he was overwhelmed by the crowd in New Mexico, who could not get inside the main hall.
“I know you don’t think so, but I think we have some pretty good people. They are quite enthusiastic. You don’t write it like that, but they are,” Biden said as he left California on Friday.
However, his events have not generated the same electricity as Obama’s. The former president has taken aim at Trump and his acolytes in appearances around the country in recent weeks, using his wry humor and air of surprise to mock Republicans.
Like Biden, he has also argued that the American system of government is at stake in next week’s election, telling a crowd in Arizona that “democracy as we know it” could die if election deniers take office.
Obama and Biden last appeared together at the White House in September, when Obama’s official portrait was unveiled in the East Room of the White House. The event was postponed while Trump was in office, partly because neither Obama nor Trump were interested in a show of friendship.
While campaigning for endorsed candidates this fall, Trump has made little attempt to hide his larger ambitions: supporting his presidential campaign, which he hopes will return him to the White House.
“Get ready, that’s all I’m saying,” Trump told a crowd in Sioux City, Iowa, on Thursday, adding that he would “very likely do it again.”
Top Trump aides have discussed the third week of November as the perfect launching point for the 2024 presidential campaign if Republicans do well in the midterm elections, sources familiar with the matter said.
For Biden, the decision may take a little longer. He points to family discussions about the holidays when asked about his timeline. Members of his political team have made early preparations for a campaign infrastructure in the hope that he will decide to run again.
His motivating factor, aides say, is that Trump jumps into him.