Clearly relishing the chance to strike back at his successor, the former president has been willing to throw punches on behalf of Joe Biden's unity-focused campaign.
Former President Barack Obama bounded off the stage in Philadelphia last week after his debut as Joe Biden's 2020 battering ram and pronounced himself pumped — and even a bit delighted at the chance to troll his troll, President Donald Trump.
"Oh man, that felt good," Obama told a friend in a phone call — and he let Biden's staff know that the ungainly format of the event, a "drive-in rally" where he addressed hundreds of supporters in cars in a stadium's parking lot, had worked surprisingly well, according to several people close to the former president who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
In 2016, Obama took his whacks at Trump on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Then he stepped up his criticism of his successor during the 2018 midterm elections. This summer, during the virtual Democratic convention, he offered a damning jeremiad against the president, warning that Trump's reelection would "tear our democracy down."
But nothing Obama has said during the Trump era compares with his gleeful slag-heaping of scorn upon Trump in the closing days of the 2020 campaign, part of a two-week burst of activity that will culminate in a joint rally with Biden being planned for this coming weekend, according to Democratic officials.
"What's his closing argument? That people are too focused on Covid?" Obama said Tuesday at an Orlando rally intended to energise voters in Florida, a perennial neck-and-neck battleground and Trump's adopted home state. "He said this at one of his rallies. 'Covid, Covid, Covid,' he's complained. He's jealous of Covid's media coverage."
Trump was apparently watching. And he complained about how much media coverage Obama was getting. "@FoxNews is playing Obama's no crowd, fake speech for Biden, a man he could barely endorse," Trump tweeted at the 21-minute mark of his predecessor's speech.
Obama's return to the trail is driven by a desire to help Biden in any way he can, according to friends and Democratic aides. He has already lent his name to about 50 fundraising emails on behalf of Biden and other Democrats, in addition to cutting get-out-the-vote ads appearing in 15 swing states and raising millions of dollars through online fundraisers.
Above all, he has been eager to reverse roles with his loyal helpmate, these allies and associates say, and willing to throw punches that would undermine the former vice president's image as a national healer if Biden took the swing himself.
It has also allowed Obama to have fun at a time when many Biden supporters have been anxiously following state polling averages in fear of a second Trump surprise. Obama is clearly relishing the chance to strike back at Trump, who has not only baited him for years but has also tried to eradicate his legacy, policy by policy.
"He's plainly having a good time out there — like a guy with a lot of material to work with who's been waiting a long time to share it," said David Axelrod, a longtime campaign and White House adviser to the former president.
Obama kicked off the Philadelphia rally by giddily referring to a recent New York Times report that detailed previously unknown financial holdings of the president's in China and other foreign countries.
"Can you imagine if I had a secret Chinese bank account when I was running for reelection?" Obama asked after ridiculing lower-than-expected recent TV ratings for the president and mocking him for contracting the coronavirus after flouting safety measures. "They would've called me Beijing Barry."
At his second rally, on Saturday in a Miami parking lot, Obama went after Trump with an ear-to-ear smile that at times gave way to raw-nerve rage.
Popping up in Florida just as Trump arrived in West Palm Beach to cast his vote, the former president slammed his successor for mishandling the coronavirus pandemic, "fumbling" the economy, asking aides about selling Puerto Rico, musing about killing the virus by injecting disinfectant, and once reportedly floating the idea of blasting hurricanes with nuclear weapons.
Obama concluded by comparing Trump, unfavourably, to the state's signature meme, a feckless and addled Everyman known for bizarre and idiotic behavior.
"Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff!" Obama said. "Why do we accept it from the president of the United States?"
Trump took instant notice. "Nobody is showing up for Obama's hate laced speeches," the president wrote on Twitter moments after Obama had finished. "47 people! No energy, but still better than Joe!"
There were, in fact, dozens of cars at the event, and the Biden campaign said hundreds of potential attendees had been turned away to comply with social-distancing requirements.
Obama's manicured vitriol falls considerably short of anything Trump might say in the course of a typical rally, and so far the post-speech fact-checks have been a comparatively light lift. An Obama staff member said that all of his preplanned zingers had been fact-checked.
But his tone, nonetheless, represents a sharp divergence from the 2016 summons by his wife, Michelle Obama, in support of Clinton: "When they go low, we go high."
Michelle Obama, who has recorded videos for the Biden campaign, has no plans to appear at events in person this campaign, Democratic aides with knowledge of her plans said. Her husband, for his part, is intent on expending his political capital now, even if it involves abandoning his characteristic reluctance to sling insults at Trump, a man he has privately described as beneath contempt.
In meetings with Biden's team over the summer, the former president — who seeks advice but makes all of his own scheduling and messaging decisions — mapped out a general schedule of in-person appearances in critical battleground states targeting Black voters and young people, the groups he believes are most receptive to his message.
In those conversations, Barack Obama outlined the role of "happy warrior," of attacking Trump directly in a way he had never done before, but with the lacerating humour he employed during his two campaigns for president.
Some of his slaps are spontaneous, but many have been carefully workshopped — including the "Beijing Barry" line, which was delivered the day before the final presidential debate and was deployed to defuse Trump's attacks on business deals in China pursued by Biden's son Hunter, aides said.
Obama's bellicose approach had another benefit that was not immediately evident until he began working on his remarks this month, according to Democratic aides.
The former president believed that taking on the classic bodyguard role embraced by Mike Pence and previous Democratic vice-presidential candidates would enable Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, to avoid having to make those attacks herself and remain largely above the fray.
Yet for all of his continued popularity with Democratic voters, Obama is not on the ticket in 2020 — and his frenetic late campaigning on behalf of Clinton did not prove decisive four years ago.
And his presence, especially in a complex state like Florida, is not universally positive.
"Obama's Cuba policies were deeply unpopular with many voters in southern Florida, and for all of his post-presidency popularity, he also carries some real liabilities," said Alex Conant, a veteran political consultant who worked for Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican who opposed Obama's attempt to normalise relations with the government in Havana.
"Obama's always been skilful at driving a message and twisting a knife," Conant added. "But his political capital wasn't transferable when he was president, and it's unclear if it is now."
Written by: Glenn Thrush
Photographs by: Kriston Jae Bethel and Todd Heisler
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES