Former President Barack Obama rallied supporters of Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial candidate and expressed frustration about the current state of political discourse Thursday evening.
Obama told Virginia voters Thursday evening to back Democrat Ralph Northam in next month's election, saying Northam wants to take the state forward and not backward.
He also decried the current state of politics and said "our democracy's at stake" in the Virginia election.
Obama returned to the campaign trail Thursday to stump for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as they gear up for next month's elections. Thursday's events marked the first time the former president stepped back into the political spotlight since leaving the White House.
Obama is hoping to sway voters in New Jersey and Virginia, the only two gubernatorial races this year. Both Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, are term-limited. Those Nov. 7 races will be considered a bellwether of Democrats' strength in the face of President Donald Trump's victory last year.
Democrats Hope Obama Rally Increases Voter Turnout
In Richmond, thousands of people lined up on Tuesday to get tickets to Obama's Thursday evening rally in support of Northam in his campaign against Republican Ed Gillespie.
Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey spoke to one man who woke up at 3 a.m. to be one of the first in line, even though doors for the event didn't open until 5 p.m.
Retired Richmond social worker Nancy Jackson, 67, said she missed Obama "tremendously" and wished he could serve a third, fourth and fifth term. She said black voters like herself have been despondent since Trump took office. "I think Obama will bring some light to the end of the tunnel," she said.
People in line for the rally assured they were looking forward to seeing Northam, but it was clear from their T-shirts, hats and bags the former president is generating the excitement, which is the point of the event. Some polls this week suggest the race is tightening. Northam still leads in most polls, but it's often within the margin of error.
Former RNC Chairman Gillespie has strong support in rural areas of Virginia and brought in his own star power last week with Vice President Mike Pence.
Some Democrats worry Northam hasn't done enough to energize people who don't always turnout strong in off-year elections, especially young voters and African-American voters, but those at the rally believe Obama can change that with the rally.
"I just feel he has a lot of support with him so him being with Northam brings him support as well," Alexis Gilmore said.
"I was already pretty excited for Northam," Charlie Schirra said. "Having this kind of big ticket name come down to support him is huge."
"A lot of people said at beginning it was his election to lose," political analyst Bob Holsworth said. "I will tell you there are a number of Democrats right now that are very concerned that's exactly what he's doing, because he doesn't have a strong issue and is not motivating and exciting people in the way they believe can be done in this first year of a Trump presidency."
Republicans said they weren't surprised to see Obama come to Virginia, and an RNC spokesman wrote in a statement, "Virginians will cast their votes based on kitchen table issues, not star power."
Obama Attends 'Canvas Kickoff' in New Jersey
Obama first dropped in on campaign workers in Newark, New Jersey, for a private "canvass kickoff" for Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, Obama's former ambassador to Germany, who is running against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
He told the crowd at a Newark hotel that "you can send a message to the country and you will send a message to the world that we are rejecting a politics of division. We are rejecting a politics of fear."
"Some of the politics we see now we thought we put that to bed," Obama said. "That's folks looking 50 years back. It's the 21st century, not the 19th century."
Jersey City resident Diane Coleman, 70, was among the first wave of people let in the room where Obama will speak. The Democrat said she voted for Obama twice and would vote for him again if he could run. She emphasized that speaking negatively of Republican President Donald Trump could alienate some voters.
Unlike more low-key appearances earlier this year, Obama's foray into two states won't be a one-and-done. He is planning more public appearances as the year closes, and preparation for the 2018 midterm elections begins.
"Obama seems to be determined to be an engaged and active former president who's playing a role in different issues and is involved in politics," Rutgers University professor David Greenberg said.
At the end of the month, Obama will go to Chicago to head up his first Obama Foundation leadership summit on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, bringing in speakers like England's Prince Harry, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and artists like Gloria Estefan, Chance the Rapper and indie rock band The National.
Obama Remains Popular
Obama's popularity is still undeniable. In an August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 51 percent of Americans said they have a favorable opinion of Obama, while 35 percent had a negative opinion. In the same poll, 36 percent said they had a positive opinion of Trump and 52 percent had a negative opinion.
Obama never completely disappeared from public life, in part because of Trump's constant criticism and efforts to undo much of Obama's legacy after eight years in office. He has publicly defended his policies that Trump and the GOP-led Congress have set out to dismantle: the Affordable Care Act - or Obamacare - and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to be temporarily shielded from deportation.
Obama was forced to return "pretty quickly," presidential historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University said.
"The current president has changed all the conventional assumptions about what to do," Zelizer said. "There is a sense of urgency that makes this moment different than others and former President Obama has continued to be directly in Trump's line of fire - both his policies and his legacy."