Obama in Detroit: Vote because 'character of our country is on ballot'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former President Barack Obama rallied thousands of Michigan Democrats here Friday night, channeling his past calls for hope and change as he urged voters to get to the polls Nov. 6 for what "might be the most important election of our lifetime."

Speaking to an enthusiastic overflow crowd at Cass Tech High School, Obama warned supporters that the failure to vote in the mid-term election could have "dangerous and profound" impacts for a country now led by President Donald Trump and a Republican-led Congress.

"The character of our country is on the ballot," he said. 

While he rarely addressed Trump by name, Obama repeatedly criticized his bombastic successor while lamenting what he called a "cynical" politics of division. 

"You can reject that kind of politics," the former president said. "The good news is, Michigan, you can choose a more hopeful, more generous vision of America. But to get there, you have to vote."

Fans packed the roughly 5,000-seat gymnasium, where the high school marching band punctuated Obama's punch lines with drum fills and cymbal crashes. Supporters cycled between "Yes we can" and "Obama" chants.

His visit came 11 days before a mid-term election in which turnout could be a critical factor for Democratic candidates like gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to rally with Republicans on Monday.

Michigan Democrats traditionally struggle to turn out voters in non-presidential election years, particularly in urban areas like Detroit. Beyond Whitmer's running mate Garlin Gilchrist II, Democrats are offering a predominately white statewide ticket to voters in the majority African-American city. 

Obama, the nation's first black president, pumped his fist to the crowd as he took the stage before hugging Stabenow and Whitmer, whom he praised during his speech.

He also gave shout-outs to congressional candidates, including 11th Congressional District hopeful Haley Stevens, who worked on his auto task force and was "a critical part of my team that helped the auto industry come roaring back" after near collapse. Pence's wife Karen rallied early Friday evening with Stevens' Republican opponent Lena Epstein in Commerce Township.

Two years after an election that Trump and other Republicans won on a promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Obama touted his signature health care law and its popular protections for pre-existing conditions. 

Voters can trust Stabenow to defend those protections "because she was there" fighting for them in the first place, Obama said, questioning Republican challenger John James' claim he supports Trump "2000 percent."

Whitmer helped expand Medicaid access when she served in the state Legislature, he said, "and few people fought against it harder than her opponent," Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, who now says the Healthy Michigan program is "the law of the land" and not going away.

While the national and state economy have improved since cratering during the Great Recession that peaked Obama's first year in office, critics say sluggish growth under his watch has improved under Trump and federal tax cuts. Michigan's unemployment rate in January 2017 when Obama left office was 5 percent, while the jobless rate in September was 4 percent.

Republicans called it "insulting" for Obama to rally with Democrats who "will work to systematically dismantle the policies generating all of this progress," said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Joyce. "Michiganders have high hopes for a bright and prosperous future, and voters know that no matter what Obama says, Michigan Democrats do not share that vision.” 

Obama criticized tax cuts he said will balloon the deficit and primarily benefit the wealthy and corporations.

He accused Republicans of trying to distract voters from critical issues. Instead of talking about Flint water, infrastructure or health care, Trump is trying to fire up his base by talking about "impoverished refugees 1,000 miles away," he said, referencing the Honduran migrant caravan the Republican president has bemoaned. 

And Obama repeatedly criticized "lies" coming out of Washington, D.C., arguing that telling the truth should be something that Democrats and Republicans should agree on.

“When words stop meaning anything, when truth doesn’t matter, when people can just make up facts, then democracy, it doesn’t work," Obama said. "There’s no accountability”

Whitmer and other Democrats contrasted Obama's presidency with Trump. 

“Anyone miss the days when we had a president we could be proud of?" Whitmer said. "A president who told the truth? A president who protects the Great Lakes and the auto industry? A president who made it possible for us to expand Medicaid here in Michigan and get 680,000 people covered?”

Stabenow praised Obama for continuing and expanding the auto bailout that helped save jobs at General Motors and Chrysler.

"No thanks to the current Vice President Mike Pence, who voted against us when he was a congressman," she said. 'And by the way, he'll be here Monday stumping for my opponent."

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under Obama, spent significant time touting Michigan Proposal 2, which would create a citizen redistricting commission to draw new political boundaries each decade instead of politicians.

“This is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country,” said Holder, who chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “I’ve been all around, and you’ve got it bad in Michigan. You’ve got to do something about it.”

Holder also urged Democrats to vote Nov. 6 even if they are “disappointed or feeling despair” after election loses in 2016.

“Think about Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis and how they must’ve felt tired at some points of the civil rights struggle,” he said. “People died so that people would have the right to vote. People suffered so that people would have the right to vote.”

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, rallied female voters before introducing 11th Congressional District candidate Haley Stevens and 8th Congressional District candidate Elissa Slotkin, women Lawrence said she wanted with her on the “front lines” in Congress.

Thousands of supporters lined up outside Cass Tech earlier Friday to hear Obama speak, some who waited from 10 a.m. until the doors opened at 5 p.m. At the front of the line, a diverse group of women were sharing food and stories.

“It’s amazing the decency that we’ve all demonstrated toward each other,” said Fazila Siddiqui, a 45-year-old Pakistani immigrant and nurse practitioner student from West Bloomfield.

The former president “helped keep the country together, and I feel like that’s something we’ve gotten away from,” said Siddiqui, who plans to vote for Whitmer in the governor’s race.

Renee Hill of Detroit, a 56-year-old legal department worker, said she started her day by texting as many people as possible to tell them to vote on Nov. 6. She’s borrowing her daughter’s phone and didn’t even know most of the people she was messaging.

“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, if you don’t vote, you take away from your voice,” she said. “You can’t complain about nothing because you didn’t get off or your behind and go do your civic duty.”

Just 31 percent of Detroit voters cast ballots in 2014, compared with 43 percent statewide, when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder won re-election over Democratic challenger Mark Schauer by roughly four percentage points.

About 48.6 percent of Detroit voters cast ballots in 2016, when statewide turnout topped 64 percent and Republican President Donald Trump  beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by less than one point.

Detroit elections officials are projecting that 41 percent to 46 percent of the city's 470,000 registered voters will cast ballots on Election Day based on the primary turnout in the city and statewide. In 2016, City Clerk Janice Winfrey expected a voter turnout of 45 percent to 50 percent.

James, who is challenging Stabenow, on Friday launched a new a commercial that argued black voters shouldn't be captives of the Democratic Party.

"So Joe Biden has said that he believes that Republicans don't want black people to vote. Well, I'm a Republican. I want black people to vote. In fact, I want everyone to vote who is eligible to vote," James says in the one-minute ad.

"...The Democratic Party leadership cares more about the black vote than the black people, and it's time to wake up. It doesn't have to be this way. We can have a seat at both tables, and we can elevate our people together."

Pence is expected to campaign 8th Congressional District candidate Mike Bishop and 11th District candidate Lena Epstein on Monday before attending a Kent County GOP dinner with Schuette, James and other Republicans.

The Michigan Republican Party on Friday bashed Democrats ahead of the visit by Obama, arguing his eight years as president "were an unmitigated disaster."

"Obama’s policies of high taxes, more regulation and fewer jobs were the perfect book end to Jennifer Granholm’s Lost Decade," said Michigan GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson. "Republicans have the momentum, and just like in 2016, last minute fly-ins will not slow that momentum down.”