Three presidents — one sitting and two former — descended on Pennsylvania on Saturday for the last of a long midterm push that underscored stakes in one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate races.
For President Joe Biden, who made a rare joint appearance with former President Barack Obama in Philadelphia to cheer on Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Pennsylvania was a test of political tension in his home state, which he has visited 20 times since taking office. .
For former President Donald Trump, who rallied Saturday night in Latrobe, outside Pittsburgh, a victory for his hand-picked candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, could prove his own lasting viability in a commonwealth he lost by a narrow margin in 2020.
The ramifications extend beyond next week’s election. As Trump prepares to announce a third presidential bid in the coming weeks, Biden’s aides are taking their own initial steps to launch a re-election campaign. For a stretch of several hours on Saturday, the dynamics of a potential 2020 rematch unfolded.
The moment marks a historic anomaly. Former presidents typically stay out of day-to-day politics, often avoiding direct criticism of the men they once held. Not since Grover Cleveland in 1892 has a defeated one-term president won the White House again.
The convergence of presidents in Pennsylvania, each warning of dire consequences if the opposition prevails, reflects norms that changed when Trump took office nearly six years ago, quickly issuing trumped-up charges against Obama for espionage and general wrongdoing.
In North Philadelphia, Biden told a packed crowd at Temple University that Fetterman would defend Social Security and Medicare and look out for veterans.
“When I ran for the presidency, my aim was to build an economy from the bottom up and from the middle. “It’s a fundamental shift compared to Oz and mega MAGA Republican trickledown economics,” Biden said of Fetterman’s GOP rival, Dr. Referring to Mehmet Oz.
As the crowd roared, the President continued, “Not really. This is not your father’s Republican Party. This is a different kind of cat. I really mean it. See, they’re all about the rich getting richer. And the rich stay rich. The middle class is getting tougher. Under their policy, the poor are getting poorer.”
Obama foreshadowed the likelihood of a Democratic defeat.
“I can tell you from experience that the midterms matter a lot,” Obama said, referring to the 2010 election that saw the GOP regain control of the House of Representatives during his first administration.
“When I was president, I kicked my ass in the mid-term elections. I was elected in the midst of a financial crisis and we did the right things to get the economy back on track, but it was slow and people were as frustrated as they are now.
Biden spent much of his first year trying to avoid saying Trump’s name, and he’s no longer so cautious. He called out “Trump and all his Trumps” at a rally in California this week and identified Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as “Trump the ghost” at a fundraiser outside Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday. At his own rallies, Trump plays a video reel of his successor skidding to appear as a senior citizen — something he hasn’t often gone after Obama.
Obama, meanwhile, has issued his harshest criticism yet of Trump-backed candidates who modeled themselves after the 45th president, rejecting the 2020 election results.
“Just because someone is on TV does not make it successful. Turns out, being president or governor is about more than sharp lines and good lighting,” Obama said of Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a former local news anchor, in Arizona last week.
The Senate and gubernatorial races in Pennsylvania are the only marquee contests of this year’s midterm cycle, where Biden has repeatedly been stumped. In other high-profile races, candidates have kept their distance from a president with underwater approval ratings.
That’s not true of Obama, who is in high demand among Democrats in close races. In the final weeks of the campaign, Obama held raucous rallies in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada — cities that Biden has avoided in recent months as candidates work to stem Republican momentum.
It’s a 180-degree turn from the midterm cycles of Obama’s presidency, which saw Biden move into more states — including conservative-leaning districts — where the sitting president was seen as a drag on Democratic candidates.
According to officials, Biden is neither irritated nor surprised that Obama has gained more traction on the campaign trail this year. He has discussed some races with his former boss and believes Obama’s message resonates with voters and complements his own.
However, their joint appearance on Saturday only served to underscore their divergent styles and political abilities — a comparison that even some Democrats say ultimately favors Obama.
“I know you always ask me how we’re doing. I think we will win this time too. I feel really good about our chances,” Biden told reporters in California on Friday.
The president is bullish on Democrats’ chances next week, even as many Democrats are increasingly worried about their party’s prospects. His campaign schedule — stumping candidates in blue states in closer-than-expected races — is itself a sign of the Democrats’ weakness.
In the final days of the campaign, Biden has largely moved into the blue states he won, but the races are closer than Democrats expected. He stopped in New Mexico, California and Illinois before stumping in Pennsylvania on Saturday, and will campaign with New York Gov. Cathy Hochul on Sunday. He will spend election eve in Maryland.
People familiar with Biden’s thinking say he accepts that not every Democratic candidate will accept him as a replacement while his approval ratings remain underwater. And he has told fellow Democrats that he respects their political acumen over their own races.
But he has been frustrated by coverage that suggests he is a political albatross, according to people familiar with the conversations, who argue his policies — when properly explained — are broadly popular with voters.
Compared to both Obama and Trump, Biden has held far fewer rallies for his party this midterm cycle. Most of his engagements over the past month have been official events, delivered to crowds of sometimes only a few dozen.
In the waning days of the election campaign, his rallies have started to attract large crowds. Six hundred people were turned away from an event in Southern California on Friday, according to the White House. He was holding a rally with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham when he addressed an overflow crowd in New Mexico who were unable to enter the main venue.
“I know you don’t think so, but I think we have a good crowd. They are quite enthusiastic. You don’t write it like that, but they are,” Biden said as he left California on Friday.
Still, his events haven’t produced Obama’s electricity. The former president has taken to Trump and his allies during his series of rallies across the country in recent weeks to mock Republicans.
Like Biden, he also argues that the American system of governance is at stake in next week’s election, telling a crowd in Arizona that “democracy as we know it” could be destroyed if the dissidents take office.
Obama and Biden last appeared 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 when Trump was in office because neither Obama nor Trump were interested in showing friendship.
As he campaigns for endorsed candidates this fall, Trump has made little effort to hide his larger intentions: He hopes he will return him to the White House to undercut his own potential presidential campaign.
“Get ready, that’s all I’m saying,” Trump told a crowd in Sioux City, Iowa, on Thursday, adding that he would “probably do it again.”
Trump’s top aides have discussed the third week of November as an ideal launch point for his 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. Asked about his own schedule, he pointed to family discussions on holidays. Members of his political team have prepared a campaign infrastructure in advance, operating under the assumption that he will decide to run again.
His motivating factor, aides say: Trump jumps into himself.
This story has been updated with additional details.