WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was wrapping his stump speech here Monday — the ninth time he’d delivered it in six days — when his mind drifted back toward where his story began.
Standing at his last rally as a political headliner during the last day of his last campaign, Obama recalled the first time he heard the rallying cry “Fired Up, Ready to Go” from a South Carolina supporter named Edith Childs. Obama paused amid his urgent advocacy for Hillary Clinton to reflect upon his own political trajectory, which after more than a decade is coming to a close.
“When I ran for the presidency in ’08, the truth is not many people gave me a chance,” Obama said, resting his elbows on the podium that now bears a presidential seal. “I was a skinny guy with a funny name. When I look at pictures of me speaking, I look really young.”
It wasn’t the first time Obama recalled the Edith Childs story; his eyes welled up with tears in Iowa during the final stop of his 2012 reelection bid when he thought back to his earlier days, when he rolled his own bags through the airport and drove an hour and half through pouring rain to meet a handful of potential supporters.
In 12 years he’s gone from a US Senate candidate, riding shotgun in an aide’s sedan through small-town Illinois, to a president landing on Air Force One in three states in one day to campaign for someone else.
Unprecedented in its rigor, Obama’s final week on the trail is a final act for a President whose vision of hope and change has always been best administered in front of rapt and rowdy crowds gathered in America’s electoral battlegrounds.
“I’m feeling a little sentimental,” Obama admitted during a rally in Michigan Monday — the first stop on a frantic one day, three-state swing. “This will probably be my last day of campaigning for a while.”
With his sleeves rolled up, his jacket removed, and his square Oliver Peoples sunglasses in place, Obama has jogged on and off Air Force One 17 times since Tuesday, usually destined for a college campus where crowds can easily be mustered.
His itinerary (Ohio, North Carolina, Florida — then North Carolina and Florida again) has effectively become a map of states Democrats think they can win, but aren’t convinced they will. He’s been dispatched last-minute to areas where Clinton’s edge seems to be slipping. His stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Monday was announced only 36 hours ahead of time. A tightening race in New Hampshire prompted the Clinton campaign to schedule an election-eve appearance there in an attempt to shore up support among white, college-educated voters. He’ll close the day with Michelle Obama and the Clintons in Philadelphia.
Despite the tightening contest, aides say Obama has maintained his regular calm. He’s expressed some anxiety about lagging early vote numbers for African-Americans, but has been buoyed by surging statistics for Latinos. Any worry about a fresh probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails was muted, even before FBI Director James Comey said Sunday the bureau’s new look yielded nothing.
Some things have remained consistent. Obama has always most effectively argued his case for a progressive agenda when the election stakes are high and the odds not entirely in his favor. In 2008, he was the underdog who drew massive crowds to hear his vision of a different kind of Washington. In 2012, he was an incumbent who stumbled in his first re-election debate, only to emerge more determined to argue for another four years. And this year, he’s making the case for a candidate far less popular than himself.
Frenetic schedule, punctuated by radio calls
On most days last week Obama woke up at the White House with his schedule virtually cleared. Leaving around midday and returning late in the evening, he spent his downtime tossing a baseball around the Rose Garden with aides and tweaking his stump speech in the Oval Office. To unwind on his one night away from home, Obama stayed up late in his hotel room watching his hometown Chicago Cubs win the World Series, tweeting his congrats at 2 a.m.
In seemingly every spare moment, he’s dialed African-American radio hosts across the swing states, chatting loosely backstage at his rallies and aboard Air Force One about his favorite hip-hop artists (Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper) and his paternal dating anxieties (not high, his kids have Secret Service protection) as a prelude for urgent entreaties to vote.
“Do it for me,” he told listeners to Artie Goins’ drive-time show in Charlotte. “If you meet somebody who says I’m thinking about not voting, you can go ahead and say, the President asked me personally.”
For Obama, the stakes in this election are uniquely personal. His own speeches have cast the vote as a referendum on his record, and a Clinton victory could cement his progressive mantra of change. A loss, however, has become a nightmare scenario. Obama’s vision of the US is so at odds with Donald Trump’s he told a crowd of 16,000 college students in Chapel Hill the “fate of the world is teetering.”
Unless Michelle Obama decides to grant the Democratic Party its most elusive wish and run for office — something both she and her husband say isn’t happening — President Obama won’t appear again at the type of loud and loose arena rallies that fueled his rise and could help elect a Democratic successor.
In 2012, during the final days of his reelection bid, Obama grew nostalgic about running his final campaign. There was little expectation then that his activity now would so closely resemble an urgent referendum for his own vision of America. For Obama, it’s not an entirely unwelcome development.
“The President is having a heck of a good time being on the campaign trail,” his press secretary Josh Earnest said as Obama jetted toward Columbus on Tuesday. “The President is not just having a good time, he looks like he’s having a good time.”
Hopscotching from swing state to swing state, Obama has skipped the retail campaigning that he delighted in during his own contests. Instead of finding the local barbecue joint or pizza parlor to glad hand and pick up a meal for the ride home, he sped from airport tarmacs directly to packed arenas and back, stopping only briefly to address overflow rooms packed with supporters who couldn’t fit into his main venue.
His only detour from the campaign trail: a stop Wednesday night at Gloria Estefan’s sprawling waterfront mansion in Miami to plot his post-White House plans. Looking out over Biscayne Bay, discussing his presidential library and foundation amid South Florida’s upper echelons, the Iowa State Fair never seemed so distant.
“He’s mindful of the fact that over the course of this week, this will essentially be the last big campaign swing of his political career,” said Earnest, who has worked for Obama since 2007 before the primaries.
Deeply conscious of his impending exit, Obama has sought to extend the moment. His stump speech has grown longer, expanding to include new hits on Trump and new barbs against Republicans he says fueled the billionaire’s ascent. Even as his supporters begin to stream out early — “it’s too hot,” said one in Fayetteville on Thursday — Obama keeps going, riling himself and the crowd over the dire state of the political discourse.
“Anybody who is upset about a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit, you don’t want in charge of nuclear weapons,” Obama taunted in Miami on Thursday, only to pierce the anger with yet another exasperated “C’mon man!”
He’s used the sarcastic meme meant to jokingly blame the President for any minor inconvenience to sternly demand credit for what Republicans claimed he could never achieve. Gas, he said in Charlotte Friday, “is two bucks a gallon.”
“Thanks, Obama,” he pronounced, his face glowering as he paused to turn and accept applause and cheers from the crowd.
Re-creating the Obama coalition
Statistics showing key facets of his coalition turning out in smaller early vote numbers this year have driven the President to almost fatalistic language. His pitch for Clinton has evolved into a pleading call for participation by the groups whose support for him is strongest.
He took the get-out-the-vote mandate literally, listing off the closest precinct location down its street address during a rally in Jacksonville. Even his recitation of “10599 Deerwood Park Boulevard” was accompanied by cheers, applause, and a pep band.
That type of booming adoration won’t be available for Obama much longer, at least in that way. This week, he’s basked in it.
Stepping away from his podium in Charlotte Friday, Obama slapped the wooden sides three times — a new custom as he works to punctuate his political legacy.
Listening to an arena explode after his closing cries of “choose hope,” the President grew still. And then he pumped his arms. “Let’s go!” he mouthed to no one in particular. “Let’s go!”
“Grab your ticket and your suitcase,” Bruce Springsteen blared on the sound system for the thousandth time, as Obama dove into another sea of hands to shake.