CLEVELAND – After nearly two years of silence, President Barack Obama is ready to use his voice.
In Cleveland Thursday night, Obama showed why he might be Democrats’ biggest asset this fall, drumming up enthusiasm by condemning fearmongering from Republicans, chastising apathetic voters and lauding praise on Ohio gubernatorial candidate Rich Cordray, an early Obama supporter locked in a tight race with Republican Mike DeWine.
Breaking with years of political precedent, Obama is openly criticizing his successor, President Donald Trump, while campaigning for Democrats such as Ohio gubernatorial hopeful Rich Cordray. Democrats hope to harness that anti-Trump sentiment to help win races nationwide.
“They appeal to our tribal instincts. They appeal to fear,” Obama said of Republicans. “They try to pit one against another. They try and say border security, we’ll keep out those folks who don’t look like us or sound like us. That’s a playbook as old as time."
“In a healthy democracy, that playbook doesn’t work.”
Obama warned against indifference, saying it was the biggest threat to democracy. If you don’t like the direction of the country, "You can't just get angry. You can't just mutter to yourself while you're watching TV. You can't just move. You've got to vote,” he said.
Obama described Cordray, whom the former president appointed to lead the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as the man working quietly behind the scenes of politics. Obama contrasted that with Trump’s approach: “He didn’t tweet about it. He just did it.”
Cordray has faced criticism for being less than a barn-burner. But Obama pushed back on that characterization.
“I don’t know what happened to our culture where we think if you are a kind person and a thoughtful person, you must not be strong,” Obama said.
In the midterm elections, Republicans are touted the "booming" economy, which Ohio Republican Party leader Jane Timken said voters should attribute to GOP policies – not Obama's. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 70 percent of voters thought the nation's economy was "good" or "excellent." Ohio Republican Party leader Jane Timken called it “booming” Thursday.
Obama disagreed with that assessment. “Just remember when it started,” he said of the economic recovery.
Those at the rally said they were eager to hear Obama’s voice – a voice that had been missing from national politics for nearly two years.
“I miss hearing him speak,” said Heidi Corrothers, of Cleveland, who attended the rally with her husband, Harold. Both knew little about Cordray, but hoped to learn more about his plans for criminal justice reform and voting rights.
“What is the plan for Ohio?” Heidi Corrothers asked.
Allison Leahy, of Cleveland, said her No. 1 concern in the governor's race was health care. She obtained insurance through Obamacare and doesn’t want it dismantled.
As for Cordray, “I really don’t know much.”
That’s where Obama comes in. Obama's popularity could help candidates such as Cordray in Ohio, a state the Democratic president won twice.
The rally’s location was no coincidence. Cordray needs voters in Cleveland’s Democrat-rich Cuyahoga County to go to the polls this fall.
"It's on us to get energized and motivated," said congressional candidate Aftab Pureval, who is facing Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot in a closely watched Cincinnati race. "No one is going to do it for us."
Democrats are hoping to capitalize on scandals in Ohio’s GOP-controlled government, including former Speaker Cliff Rosenberger’s resignation and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s closure after overbilling the state for too many students.
“This state government is the most corrupt state government in my lifetime,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is facing Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci in November.
But the crowd in Cleveland was more enthusiastic about health care than ECOT.
Perhaps Democrats' bigger asset in November? Trump himself. Democrats are eager to protest Trump’s nominees, especially U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and his policies such as trying to dismantle Obama’s signature health care reform.
About 54 percent of voters nationwide don’t approve of the job the president is doing, according to that recent Quinnipiac University poll.
Still, Republicans see the current president as an asset: “2016 is over, but President Obama continues to dismiss the millions of voters across Ohio who rejected a continuation of his policies in favor of President Trump’s plan for historic tax cuts, new jobs and soaring economic growth,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said in a statement.
WATCH | See speeches from Sen. Sherrod Brown, Betty Sutton, Richard Cordray, and former President Obama from WKYC's Facebook Live