On the other, former president Donald Trump, who started the combative movement Biden nodded to and wore his signature red hat bearing its slogan, took the stage at a rally for those GOP contenders, attacking Democrats over crime, immigration and inflation. “Unfortunately, we have so many bad things happening to our country. We can’t celebrate until we start winning,” said the former president who has spent much of the election season airing grievances and promoting false claims about the 2020 election.
The extraordinary convergence of the current president and his two predecessors in Pennsylvania on the Saturday before the election highlighted the broad political implications of the state this year and beyond. The presidential split-screen came in a state starkly reflecting the country’s divisions and it offered a potential glimpse of 2024, with Trump and Biden in recent months each signaling an intention to run again.
“This crowd’s so loud I think they can hear us in Latrobe!” Biden said, referring to the city where Trump would later speak at his rally. Trump boasted of his crowd size and sought to belittle the Democrats’ rally.
The dueling events also brought into focus the sharply contrasting visions of the country each side is presenting to voters and the dangers they are associating with the opposition. The Democrats warned of the risks of voting for election deniers and those who want to further curtail abortion rights and upend entitlements. Trump described — in often exaggerated terms — a country ravaged on Democrats’ watch by crime, illegal immigration and drugs.
The expensive and bruising Senate race between Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor, and Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is seen as key to which party controls the chamber next year. Polls show a close competition. Fetterman spoke at the rally with Obama and Biden here in Philadelphia, saying that unlike his opponent on the other side of the state, everyone he stood on stage with was “sedition free.”
The governor’s race includes Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who appeared at the rally in Latrobe. The Republican helped lead unsuccessful efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania and would have significant influence over future elections. He is running against Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is viewed as a rising star in the party and who has attacked his opponent as a dire threat to democratic norms.
The distinctive styles of the three presidents came into focus as they made their closing pitches.
The Democratic event had a hybrid feel to it — part pep rally for Biden and his agenda and part an attempt to motivate voters to support Shapiro and Fetterman. Biden touted his accomplishments and the speakers at the event often tried to strike a hopeful note about the country. Biden argued this election is a “choice” and not a “referendum” on his party. Obama framed the election as bigger than issues such as the economy and crime, which have dominated many races this year.
“Truth and facts and logic and reason and basic decency are on the ballot,” Obama said. “Democracy itself is on the ballot. The stakes are high!”
The Temple University arena where they spoke vibrated. The White House said 7,500 people attended. Many were screaming and cheering loudly. As the lights dimmed, people waved their cellphones like lighters at a rock concert. When Obama, Biden, Fetterman and Shapiro took the stage together to deafening applause, they held hands as music blared.
Earlier Saturday, Obama headlined a rally for Fetterman — without Biden — in Pittsburgh, where similarly he painted a grim picture of a fractured country on the brink of losing its democracy.
Obama claimed that Trump wants Oz in the Senate to influence the results if there’s another close presidential race in 2024. “Think about that, he’s basically saying if I lose again I need him to put his thumbs on the scale,” Obama said. According to a book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, Trump told advisers that he needs people such as Oz in office in case the election is challenged in 2024 or Democrats try to impeach him again.
During the GOP primary, when Oz was appealing to Trump’s base, he questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election, but by September said he would have voted to certify Biden’s win. He also has said he will accept the results of his race if he loses.
The 44th president said he realized other issues might feel more pressing to many voters. “I understand democracy might not seem like a top priority right now when gas prices are high and grocery bills are high,” Obama said. “But let me tell you something, Pennsylvania, we’ve seen throughout history, we’ve seen around the world, what happens when you give up on democracy.”
Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016 and Biden defeated him there in a competitive race four years later. After the election, the state was a focal point of an unsuccessful effort by Trump and his allies to overturn the results. Strategists in both parties expect it to be a key 2024 battleground.
Biden urged voters to come together to propel Democrats to victory. “Two years ago you used that power to not only make Donald Trump a former president, but you made him a defeated president!” he bellowed to loud cheers.
Biden also invoked one of Fetterman’s signature attack lines against Oz, raising questions about his longtime New Jersey residency. “And Oz and Pennsylvania?” Biden asked incredulously. “Look, I lived in Pennsylvania longer than Oz has lived in Pennsylvania, and I moved away when I was 10 years old!”
While Biden hit on many of the same themes he has stressed throughout the campaign season — including lowering prescription drug prices, GOP proposals that threaten Social Security and Medicare, blasting oil companies and ridiculing Republicans who took out hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars from the pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program and oppose his student debt relief policy — he was more fiery, energetic and focused on Saturday, seeming to feed off the electricity of the crowd.
Just before Biden landed in Philadelphia, the White House sought to smooth over a skirmish with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who blasted the president for comments on one of his last campaign stops suggesting that coal plants in the United States would be shut down as the country shifts to wind and solar power.
“President Biden’s comments are not only divorced from reality, they ignore the severe economic pain the American people are feeling because of rising energy costs,” Manchin said in a statement Saturday. “Comments like these are the reason the American people are losing trust in President Biden.”
At the Trump rally, Mastriano referenced Biden’s comment. “Did you see Sleepy Joe wants to close down our coal plants?” he said to boos.
The White House suggested that Biden’s comments had been taken out of context and misconstrued.
“The President’s remarks yesterday have been twisted to suggest a meaning that was not intended; he regrets it if anyone hearing these remarks took offense,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
Biden did not reference the remark in his speech, focusing on defending his record and touting the Democratic candidates who joined him. In contrast to the Senate contest, Shapiro has run comfortably ahead of Mastriano in the gubernatorial contest, polls show, as many independents and some Republicans reject Mastriano’s far-right extremism and espousal of Christian nationalist views. Many GOP leaders have stayed away from Mastriano’s campaign, often isolating it from much of the party establishment.
The Senate race between Oz and Fetterman has tightened in recent weeks, polls show, as the two head into the final days of a hard-fought campaign that has often focused more on personal attacks than policy ideas. Fetterman has spent most of the race trying to depict Oz as an out-of-touch celebrity who has lived outside Pennsylvania. Oz has sought to cast Fetterman as soft on crime and has accused his rival of being insufficiently transparent about his health after suffering a stroke in May.
“I’ve spoken to young families who’re worried about crime. Their kids can’t go outside,” Oz said Saturday. Someone shouted back, “I’m one of them!”
Obama addressed Fetterman’s health Saturday, saying in Pittsburgh: “John’s stroke did not change who he is, it didn’t change what he cares about, it didn’t change his values, his heart, his fight. It doesn’t change who he will represent when he gets to the U.S. Senate.”
Fetterman is recovering from a stroke that left him with symptoms of an auditory processing disorder, according to the Democrat and his doctor. He has also at times struggled with his speech. His doctors have said he is capable of serving in the job of U.S. senator.
For the Republican rally, a crowd that the Secret Service counted at about 8,000 people turned out to a regional airfield in a lush green basin surrounding by rolling wooded hills outside Pittsburgh. Many attendees wore Mastriano T-shirts and bumper stickers reading “TRUMP WON.” The crowd eagerly watched approaching aircraft looking for Trump’s plane, and the former president made a dramatic entrance down the gangway and walked onto the stage in a MAGA cap.
“There’s a big crowd,” he crowed. He later took an inaccurate swipe at the Democrats’ turnout, and baselessly suggested their votes would be fraudulent. “They had a little rally here, nobody showed up for their rally,” he said. “And then they’ll say how many votes they have.”
The rowdy crowd frequently interrupted Trump with chants of “U.S.A.,” “Let’s go Brandon” and, referring to Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up!” Trump’s event Saturday was the second of four rallies for him in a final swing before Election Day. He last appeared in the state in September for a rally in Wilkes-Barre. Pennsylvania was critical to Trump’s electoral path in the past two presidential campaigns and would be again in 2024 as he prepares to formally announce his candidacy shortly after the midterms.
“I promise you, in the next very, very, very short period of time, you’re going to be so happy,” Trump said. “I don’t want to do it right not because I’d like to do it, but I want to have the focus tonight be on Dr. Oz and Doug Mastriano.”
Oz won a bruising GOP primary with the help of Trump’s endorsement, while Mastriano won Trump’s support at the end of the primary, as it appeared he was poised for victory. Mastriano has been unwavering in his commitment to false claims about fraud in the 2020 election. Oz has run toward the middle in the general, at times de-emphasizing his relationship with Trump, but in a debate pledged to support him in 2024.
Trump’s super PAC has been running ads in the state attacking Fetterman as aligned with Biden and soft on crime. One of the spots seized on Fetterman’s recovery from a stroke in May, saying he “just isn’t right.”
Biden has spent the final week before the midterms crisscrossing the country with a mix of campaign rallies and official White House events touting his administration’s policies and legislation passed by Democrats, including student debt relief, the $700 billion Inflation Reduction Act and a domestic semiconductor manufacturing bill.
The president has also used all of his stops to lambaste Republicans for proposals that would slash or curb Social Security and Medicare and delivered an unprecedented warning to voters that GOP candidates who refuse to accept Tuesday’s results could set the nation on a “path to chaos.”
But unlike Obama, Biden has largely visited states that are safely Democratic, including New Mexico, California and Illinois, with stops in New York and an election eve rally in Maryland still planned. Biden also visited Florida, where Republican statewide candidates hold comfortable leads.
Some Biden aides had been uneasy about the prospect of the former and current president appearing together for fear that Obama would overshadow Biden and invite unfavorable comparisons. But the Philadelphia event came together as a result of Biden advisers requesting that Obama come for a joint appearance, according to those familiar with the planning, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics.
Advisers to both men said they are in frequent touch and the Obama staff clears its events with Biden’s so they are in close coordination.
The current dynamic between the two men is in some ways a role reversal from when Obama had to take a back seat during his party’s midterms in 2010 after the passage of the Affordable Care Act brought down his approval ratings. Biden was the sought-after surrogate, as he was in 2018, when Trump was president and Democrats retook control of the House.
Biden’s low approval ratings — hovering at about 43 percent, according to a Washington Post average of polls — have been a drag on many Democratic candidates, who have sought to keep their distance from Biden in their campaigns’ final stretch.
Pennsylvania has been the exception: Biden, a native Pennsylvanian and longtime senator for neighboring Delaware, has visited the state several times since kicking off the campaign season at the end of August, including for a speech on the future of democracy he held on Sept. 1. Biden has also appeared with Fetterman on a handful of occasions, making him one of the few Democrats running on purple terrain willing to appear with the president.
Biden often refers to his upbringing in Scranton as evidence of his blue-collar roots and points to the state being critical to his 2020 victory. If Biden chooses to run again in 2024 — which he has said he plans to do — there is broad agreement across both parties that Pennsylvania would again be key to his path to a second term.
Biden grew impassioned at the end of his speech. “I’ve traveled this country and seen this great nation … we are good people. I know this. There’s no quit in John Fetterman. There’s no quit in Pennsylvania. There is no quit in America. … We are the United States of America!” he said with a raised voice.
Arnsdorf reported from Latrobe, Pa. Abutaleb reported from Washington.