Former President Barack Obama traveled to Milwaukee on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 29, to campaign on behalf of another “Democrat with a funny name”: Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s Democratic nominee for US Senate. It was an opportunity for Obama to take a swipe at former president Donald Trump, who dogged him throughout his presidency with racist dog whistles that falsely cast doubt on his US citizenship. “Mandela, get ready to dig up that birth certificate,” Obama teased to massive applause.
“I know that there are some folks, probably — maybe not in this auditorium, but elsewhere in Wisconsin — who think…just because Mandela’s named Mandela, just because he’s a Democrat with a funny name, he must not be like you, he must not share your values,” Obama said from the stage of a high school gymnasium in Milwaukee. He referred to GOP attack ads “implying Mandela is dangerous and different,” the former president added.
“I mean, we’ve seen this,” Obama said. “It sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?”
Obama jokingly referred to Trump’s “birtherism” conspiracy as “the good old days,” a time when Trump’s only interactions with the White House were his demands that Obama release his long form birth certificate. “Remember that that was the craziest thing he was saying?” Obama said, never mentioning Trump by name. “Now, it doesn’t even make the Top 10 list of crazy.”
Obama traveled to Wisconsin in advance of a high stakes midterm election in a state President Joe Biden won by only 20,000 votes two years ago. Barnes is facing incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), whom Obama lambasted for his alleged role in attempting to supply fake electors to then-vice president Mike Pence in an effort to undermine Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election results. “If that doesn’t elicit uniform outrage, what will?” Obama said. “What would it take?”
Barnes’ parallelism with Obama goes beyond the “funny name.” Barnes forged his own political path in Obama’s mold, beginning his career as a community organizer in Milwaukee for the same national network as the one Obama served on Chicago’s South Side. Those kindred beginnings and Barnes’ hastened rise through Wisconsin’s political ranks—a state legislator by 26, lieutenant governor by 32—invited comparisons to the former president’s own meteoric rise to America’s highest office.
Wisconsin Democrats who took the stage on Saturday were eager to remind the crowd of those comparisons: A local Democratic organizer noted the state had the opportunity to “elect our first Black senator,” just as it had the country’s first Black president 14 years ago . Barnes mentioned coming home from a summer job and catching then-state senator Obama’s keynote speech during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “It was quite literally a speech that changed my life,” he said.
Obama also campaigned on behalf of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who faces a tough reelection fight against GOP candidate Tim Michels, who has been endorsed by the longest-serving former governor of the state, Tommy Thompson. Evers has “a little bit more of a Clark Kent vibe than a Superman vibe,” Obama teased of the soon-to-be-71-year-old (his birthday is in November) Evers’ Wheaties-esque appeal. “But,” he added, “he might be democracy’s best hope in Wisconsin. That’s one more reason he deserves your vote.”
Obama also launched into criticisms over “a breakdown in basic civility” in politics. “This habit of saying the worst about people,” Obama reasoned, “that creates a dangerous climate.” He condemned “over-the-top, crazy rhetoric” and the “elected officials [who] don’t do more to reject it.” Obama also called out right-wing efforts to undermine fair elections through vote intimidation and vigilante tactics. “If they’re telling supporters to stand outside voting places with guns and tactical gear,” Obama said, “that’s the kind of thing that ends up getting people hurt.” Obama had opened his critiques with a prayer for Paul Pelosi, the husband of the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Wisc.) who suffered serious injuries in the couple’s San Francisco home on Friday after an intruder with a hammer attacked him, allegedly looking for Nancy. His statements echoed similar points he’d made during an appearance in Detroit earlier on Saturday.
The former president’s appearance marked the third of Obama’s five-state midterms swing. His itinerary focuses on urban centers with a heavy concentration of Black voters, in states where their turnout could be decisive in toss-up gubernatorial and US Senate races. Of all his stops, Milwaukee looms particularly large as a cautionary tale: Hillary Clinton notoriously skipped campaigning in Wisconsin during the 2016 general election, a tactical decision blamed for the erosion of Black voters who shored up Obama’s healthy winning margins in 2008 and 2012. Though President Joe Biden defeated Trump, turnout in Milwaukee was no better than it had been in 2016 — and, in fact, was slightly worse in majority Black wards.
Obama’s return to Milwaukee, then, was an effort to recapture those “Obama landslides,” as the Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler told the crowd before Obama’s remarks. The crowd seemed eager to recapture it, too, as it broke out in spontaneous call-and-response chants of “fired up, ready to go!”, a feature of Obama’s rallies when the former president first ran in 2008.
“The reason I’m here is simple,” Obama said early in his remarks. “I am here to ask you to vote.”
But some Wisconsin Democrats were concerned about the would-be voters who weren’t in the crowd on Saturday afternoon. North Division High School, in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, is among one the city’s poorest and most incarcerated — and home to the Black voters Democrats most hope will vote in November. But the throng of thousands who packed into North Division’s gymnasium was much whiter than the surrounding neighborhood, an outcome that gave state lawmaker David Bowen pause. “My fear is that the folks who need to hear his message won’t,” Bowen, who attended Saturday’s rally, tells RollingStone.
Anecdotes from the crowd confirmed Bowen’s fears. Kim and Jermain Jordan, sisters who live in the same neighborhood as the school where Obama spoke, said they couldn’t convince their collective five children, all in their 20s and 30s, to come to Obama’s rally or vote on Election Day— even though both happen at that very high school. “They say, ‘What’s the point?’” Kim Jordan tells RollingStone. They both nevertheless promised to insist their children come with them to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8.