Obama, campaigning in Florida's COVID epicenter, criticizes Trump's pandemic response

©Miami Herald

Former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS

MIAMI — Former President Barack Obama criticized nearly every facet of President Donald Trump’s record while campaigning for Democratic nominee Joe Biden Saturday, making specific appeals to Florida’s diverse electorate by mentioning issues like socialism, Obamacare and the federal government’s Hurricane Maria response during his first Miami speech in two years.

But the biggest chunk of his 45-minute speech was devoted to an issue that affects every voter: Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Obama — speaking at a drive-in rally in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s coronavirus epicenter — accused Trump of ignoring plans the Obama administration left behind to fight a future pandemic and focusing on his public image over the health and safety of Americans.

“We literally left this White House a pandemic playbook to show them how to respond before a virus reached our shores,” Obama said at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami. “It must be lost along with the Republican health care plan.”

The pandemic has altered the state of campaigning across the country and Obama’s Miami speech was no exception. Instead of applause, Obama was greeted with horn-honking from the 228 cars allowed on an open field in the middle of campus. Instead of a backdrop full of politicians and community leaders, Obama gave his remarks from an empty stage.

“We just saw the highest number of cases spike up yesterday,” Obama said, of COVID-19 infections nationally. “You think (Trump) would be ready for a response? He doesn’t have a plan. He doesn’t even acknowledge the reality.”

The speech was Miami’s highest-profile political event on the first Saturday of early voting, as both the Biden and Trump campaigns fanned out across South Florida. Trump began the day by voting in-person in Palm Beach County and his campaign held events where Trump’s vote was broadcast live across the state. A coalition of faith-based groups spent the day encouraging Black voters to vote early at three sites in Miami-Dade County. And Vice President Mike Pence ended Saturday with a rally in Tallahassee.

Obama’s drive-in rally — supporters stayed in or around their decorated cars to maintain social distancing — was an effort by the Biden campaign to build enthusiasm without packing supporters into tight spaces. Over a loud speaker, the 400 attendees were reminded several times to close to their cars and that Obama wouldn’t speak unless everyone in attendance could touch their own vehicles.

More than 16,000 Florida residents have died of COVID-19, according to the Florida Department of Health. The outbreak in Florida isn’t as severe now as it was in late July, but the number of positive cases has been rising somewhat in recent days, with 4,433 cases reported Saturday.

Obama, before arriving at FIU, stopped at a Biden-Harris field office in Miami Springs and spoke to a small crowd of Democratic organizers over a megaphone where he said, “If you bring Florida home, this thing’s over.” His stop at the small, majority Latino city was meant to motivate local campaign workers for Biden in communities where Trump’s campaign thinks they can find enough votes to win Florida on Election Day.

Obama also mentioned Florida’s policy of counting mail-in votes as they are received, meaning that the state could offer some clarity on Election Day once polls are closed.

“I won’t have to wait for the results,” Obama said. “I want to go to sleep knowing we’re going to have a president fighting on our behalf.”

At least some of the scattered crowd at FIU on Saturday had already voted. Bernice Fidelia-Morris, a Miami Shores Democrat who came to the U.S. from Haiti about 40 years ago, said she’s anxious to vote Trump out of office. She said she plans to vote Sunday at the Lemon City Branch Library.

“This particular president doesn’t care about people, doesn’t care about nothing but himself. It’s what’s in it for him,” said Fidelia-Morris, who worries about the future of her Obamacare insurance and Trump’s efforts to deport Haitians. “Look at us Haitians. Why is he sending everybody home in this COVID?”

It also wasn’t a coincidence that the Democratic Party brought their biggest draw to majority Black North Miami. Black voter turnout in the state dropped from 74% in 2008 during Obama’s first run for president to 69% in 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost Florida to Trump by 112,000 votes.

Obama used one of his many Trump-related zingers to respond to a boast from the president, which he repeated at Thursday’s final presidential debate, that “not since Abraham Lincoln has anybody done what I’ve done for the Black community.”

“He loves talking about black unemployment, says he’s the best president for Black Americans since Abe Lincoln,” Obama said, with a smile and a shake of his head. “What?”

He also went after Trump for lying to the public: “We can’t just say, oh it’s fine if a president lies 50 times a day. My mother would whoop me if I lied once a day, once a week.”

Angela D. Nelson, 64, drove to the rally in her black Hyundai Kona. A registered Democrat and member of the NAACP, said she’s “voting to get Trump out of office.”

“I’m proud of what we’re doing. I hope that we step up and stand for equal rights and justice,” said Nelson, a retired Miami-Dade public schools teacher who voted early Monday at the Miramar Branch Library in Broward County.

More than 5 million Floridians have already voted early and by mail, a number that is already approaching the 6.6 million ballots cast by mail and early in the entire 2016 election. As of Saturday morning, 2.3 million Democrats had voted, 1.9 million Republicans, and 1 million independent voters.

Biden is banking on Democrats to show up in high numbers to vote in person this weekend and next. Though the party’s voters have posted record vote-by-mail numbers — with nearly 1.7 million mail ballots cast statewide as of Saturday morning — Republicans have quickly eaten into Democrats’ mail ballot lead this week.

Democrats matched Republicans vote for vote on Monday, the first day of early in-person voting. But the following four days saw around 190,000 more Republicans than Democrats vote early.

Florida Democrats tend to post bigger early voting numbers during weekends. And rather than leave those trends up to chance, both the Biden and Trump campaigns attempted to whip the vote in Florida Saturday.

Trump voted in person in West Palm Beach Saturday morning and broadcast it to supporters at “Trump the Vote” rallies around the state. And, though Biden was in Pennsylvania Saturday, his campaign hosted a series of events up and down the state, as did a number of progressive non-profits supporting Biden.

Republicans said they remained confident. “After President Trump’s clear victory in the debate Thursday night, sending Barack Obama to the Sunshine State will do nothing to stop President Trump’s looming re-election,” Trump Victory spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said.

Obama made a number of Florida-specific appeals during his speech on Saturday.

He criticized Trump for trying to overturn Obamacare through the courts without offering a replacement, reminding Miami-Dade County voters that the area is particularly reliant on the 10-year-old law for increasing the number of families and children with health insurance.

“Miami-Dade has the highest enrollment of any county in Florida,” Obama said. “Florida has the highest enrollment of any state in America. Just this week Trump flat out said he hopes the Supreme court will take Obamacare away.”

And he also responded to ongoing Republican attacks that Biden is a socialist or a tool of the socialist left, attacks which are particularly aimed at Cuban-American voters and other Latinos in Miami-Dade. Polling suggests that Trump is in a position to do better with South Florida Latinos in 2020 than he did in 2016.

“Don’t fall for that garbage. Joe Biden is not a socialist,” Obama said. “He was a senator from Delaware. He was my vice president; I think folks would know if he was a secret socialist by now.”

The overarching message of Obama’s speech — that four more years of Trump would lead to worse healthcare outcomes in the midst of a pandemic — was reinforced by the 17-year-old who introduced him, Miami Northwestern senior George Pickens. Pickens, who is Black, lost his mother nine months ago to cancer and Obama mentioned him frequently throughout his speech.

“Personally, I’m tired of having a president who spends more time with Twitter than I do,” Pickens said.

Obama closed his remarks with an appeal for Floridians to vote early, and vote for Democrats, making a COVID-themed riff from his famous “Fired Up! Ready to go!” chant during his own campaign days.

“Honk if you’re fired up. Honk if you’re ready to go,” Obama said.

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(Miami Herald reporter Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.)

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©2020 Miami Herald

Former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Supporters react as former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Supporters react as former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Supporters react as former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Supporters react as former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Former President Barack Obama greets supporters during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Supporters gather as former President Barack Obama speaks during a drive-in car rally in Miami Springs, Florida, as he campaigns for Joe Biden on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. - Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS