Say what you will about Barack Obama, he knows how to get a crowd going. Back in campaign mode before some 18,000 supporters in a schoolyard in Germantown in northern Philadelphia, the president, alongside Joe Biden and the Pennsylvania Democratic senatorial and gubernatorial candidates, made the Democratic case heading into the November elections, sounding now-familiar midterm themes. “The Republicans drove the car into the ditch,” he declared to rapturous applause, “and now they want the keys back! No! You can’t drive!”
Philadelphia has been good to Obama. He last visited Germantown before the 2008 election, in which he carried Philadelphia by nearly half-a-million votes, roughly three-quarters of his total margin of victory in Pennsylvania. His resounding triumph here marked a fitting capstone on a presidential run resurrected from its Jeremiah Wright-induced death spiral during the primaries by a historic speech on race at the Constitution Center downtown.
The speech turned out to be perhaps the single most important moment in Obama’s entire campaign, and not just because it righted a ship threatening to go under with each replaying of Wright’s infamous, “God damn America!” exclamation. Obama exhibited before the nation the qualities that both endeared him to his base and rendered him acceptable to a broader electorate—a preternatural calmness in the face of chaos; an inclusive message of national unity and redemption; and the confidence to stick to his guns by not disowning Wright, whom he likened to family, while at the same time strongly repudiating the pastor’s comments.
Since that brisk November night when thousands descended upon City Hall to the tune of honking horns and cries of “Yes, we can!” Obama’s star has waned dramatically in the face of persistent near-ten percent unemployment and a failure to deliver on some of his most basic promises like closing Guantanamo. Not only have his approval ratings been stuck in the mid-40s for months now, but disillusionment among Obama’s base has led to an enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters that some pollsters predict could lead to electoral disaster for House and Senate Democrats come November.
Yet in the seemingly endless lines that snaked their way from the gates of the schoolyard through Germantown’s narrow side streets, the despair that’s gripped much of the left was hardly in evidence. Despite the long wait and unseasonable heat, spirits were high and attitudes toward Obama’s shortcomings forgiving. One older man with a scraggly white beard, who’d come down for the rally from New York, sympathized with the president’s political difficulties passing health care reform. “I’m sure it would’ve been a better bill if he could’ve written it himself,” he observed. A few college students in front of me joked about Obama’s graying hair. “He’s just trying to run America. No big deal.”
Meanwhile, Obama paraphernalia was everywhere—2008 campaign hats, T-shirts with an “ed” inserted at the end of “health care reform” and even an “Obama 2012” button. There was no question who the star of the show was. As always in this sports-crazed city, Phillies and Eagles gear featured prominently, but in the battle for apparel supremacy, the president no doubt had the edge on this day.
With Congressman Joe Sestak and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato lagging in the polls behind their Republican opponents for senator and governor, respectively, one might have expected the object of the president’s star power to be bolstering their fledgling candidacies. But the focus, as the rally began, remained squarely on the president. The high-powered lineup of speakers, including Congressmen Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah, Governor Ed Rendell, Senator Bob Casey and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, took turns expressing support for President Obama and decrying Republican obstructionism. Not one mentioned either Sestak or Onorato by name. Another speaker, a local field organizer, called on the crowd to visit barackobama.com and commit to “electing strong Democratic allies for Barack Obama.” I was certain the words “like Joe Sestak and Dan Onorato” would follow, but alas, they didn’t.
After Mayor Nutter’s widely-booed comments (on account of his tiff with former Mayor John Street), Sestak and then Onorato spoke for a combined three minutes, at most. Sestak vowed to “make sure the election of two years ago doesn’t go wasted.” Onorato, introduced as Joe Biden, called for renewed investments in education, declaring, “We owe this agenda to the President of the United States.” For a candidate already struggling with name recognition, the botched intro couldn’t have helped. When I mentioned Onorato’s remarks to a rally attendee at the train station afterwards, he looked at me quizzically and replied, “Onorato spoke?”
Once the full litany of state Democrats had been trotted out (minus Arlen Specter, who was present, but did not speak), Obama took the handoff from Biden and did his thing, sending the crowd home happy. But it was far from clear whether this Obamafest had done anything to help the Democratic allies his visit was presumably meant to boost. Philly still loves Obama, but whether Democrats will reap the benefits this election cycle remains heavily in doubt.