COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — Former President Barack Obama rallied an electric crowd here Friday night in support of Democratic candidates on the ballot with early voting already underway in this key battleground state.
Obama arrived with the goal of using his star power within the party — mainly among young and Black voters — to motivate Georgians to turn out and keep the state "blue" after it voted to elect President Joe Biden and two Democratic senators in the 2020 election.
"I am here to ask you to vote," he told a cheering audience, which broke out into chants of "Yes, we can!" — his presidential campaign slogan — immediately as he took the stage. "You can vote right now."
Obama headlined the event in the Atlanta area alongside Sen. Raphael Warnock, who’s running neck-and-neck with Republican challenger and former football star Herschel Walker, and Stacey Abrams, who is trying to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in a rematch of their 2018 contest.
The former president said he understands why people are anxious, but pleaded with them not to be disengaged. "Tuning out is not an option. Despair is not an option. The only way to make this economy fair is if we — all of us — fight for it," he said. "The only way to save democracy is if we — together — nurture it and fight for it."
He went on to mock Republicans, saying they talk a big game on inflation but have no answers other than "tax cuts for the wealthy." Obama added that crime is up "not just in liberal states but in conservative rural states too" and that the GOP plan is to "flood out streets with more guns." Republicans, he added, care about two things: "Owning the libs and getting [former President] Donald Trump's approval."
Obama also took aim at Walker, arguing that being a talented football player doesn't qualify him to be a senator. "There is very little evidence that he has taken any interest, bother to learn anything about, or display any kind of inclination toward public service," he said, calling the GOP candidate "a celebrity who wants to be a politician — and we’ve seen how that goes."
Warnock, speaking before Obama, also went after Walker.
"You actually have to know stuff to do this job," Warnock said. "This is a man who lies about the most basic facts of his life... We all saw it with our own eyes. He wears his lies, quite literally, as a badge of honor."
Warnock touted his votes to "pass the single largest tax cut for middle income and working families in American history" under the American Rescue Plan and to confirm Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. “While he’s blaming the people of Georgia, I’m holding the pharmaceutical companies accountable,” Warnock said, referring to Walker's advice that Americans worried about health care costs should "eat right."
Walker responded to Obama on Saturday.
“President Obama was here last night. He said I’m a celebrity. He got that one wrong, didn’t he? I’m not a celebrity, I’m a warrior for God,” he said. “He’s lost twice to Georgia already, hasn’t he, so I think he probably needs to sit this one out.” Walker added that he’s “gonna pray for” Obama “because he needs some help.”
During her remarks Friday, Abrams assailed what she called "a poverty of leadership" in the governor's mansion under Kemp.
"I will expand Medicaid as my first act in office," she said.
The rally, hosted by the Georgia Democratic Party, comes as early voting breaks records for midterm elections in this swing state.
The event was part of a multistate tour for Obama, with other stops scheduled in Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada, timed to early voting.
Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., who represents the deep-blue Atlanta area, said Obama is known to voters here as the “forever president” and that his popularity has “absolutely grown” since he left office.
“He’s a hotly requested surrogate on the campaign trail,” Williams told NBC News on Friday morning. “He still has an impact on young people... So we are looking to bring in everyone that we can who can continue to motivate our base, motivate voters and actually make it plain about what’s at stake in this election.”
Obama lost Georgia in his successful 2008 and 2012 campaigns for president, but the state has trended toward Democrats in recent election cycles.
Also Friday, the Democratic Senate campaign arm launched a TV ad in Georgia attacking Walker, highlighting past allegations of domestic violence and claims of dishonesty on his part.
On Thursday, as Biden visited New York, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was caught on a hot mic expressing concerns about Georgia as he and the president chatted privately.
"The state where we’re going downhill is Georgia," Schumer could be heard telling Biden. "It’s hard to believe that they will go for Herschel Walker.
"But our vote — our early turnout in Georgia is huge. Huge!"
Asked about the remarks, Justin Goodman, a spokesman for the majority leader, told NBC News: “Schumer believes the Democratic candidates will win.”