Barack Obama. Picture: REUTERS/EVAN VUCCI
Barack Obama. Picture: REUTERS/EVAN VUCCI

Columbus — Former US president Barack Obama called for Democrats and others concerned about the direction of the US to vote in November and fix "politics that feels broken right now", as he campaigned in statehouse and Congressional races attacking the politics and policies of his successor, Donald Trump.

Obama headlined a rally in Cleveland on Thursday night for Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) who’s running for governor of Ohio, as well as other candidates, including Senator Sherrod Brown.

A Democrat has not won a statewide race in Ohio since 2012.

"What’s at stake goes beyond partisan politics," Obama said. People "should be concerned with our current course; should be concerned about the basic institutions of our democracy; should want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness to our government; and should want to see some sort of checks and balances on what’s happening right now".

Obama didn’t mention Trump by name in the 43-minute speech, before an estimated crowd of 4,250.

With the mid-term elections fast approaching, Obama has returned to the campaign trail to help Democrats capture the 23 seats they need to regain control of the US House, as well as backing up-and-coming candidates in races important for redistricting after the 2020 census.

Pivotal point argument

The former president stumped for seven congressional candidates in California on September 8, a day after delivering a blunt rebuke to Trump in an Illinois address that was an unusual example of a former president openly criticising a successor.

Obama has been trying to make the case that the country has reached a pivotal point, exhorting Democrats and independents to vote in the November elections to reject the policies and behaviour of Trump and his Republican allies. "Instead of being a check or balance on this kind of behaviour, what you’re seeing are Republicans in Congress who are bending over backwards to try to shield and deflect oversight of this behaviour from scrutiny and accountability and consequences."

Obama also praised his shepherding of the American economy and tweaked Republicans who are taking credit for good economic times under Trump, saying, "When you hear these folks bragging about this economic miracle just remember when it started."

He also criticised Republicans’ $1.5-trillion tax cut because of the deficits that will result. "None of this is conservative," he said. "This is not normal what we’re seeing. It is radical."

The 2016 campaign is over, but Obama "continues to dismiss the millions of voters across Ohio who rejected a continuation of his policies in favour of Trump’s plan for historic tax cuts, new jobs and soaring economic growth", Republican National Committee spokesperson Mandi Merritt said in a statement. Cordray, the gubernatorial candidate, would offer "more of the same outdated Obama-era policies", she said.

Battleground state battle

In Ohio, Cordray faces Republican attorney-general Mike DeWine in the race to replace Republican governor John Kasich, who cannot run again because of term limits. Brown is being challenged by former Republican congressman Jim Renacci.

Trump easily won Ohio by eight percentage points after Obama carried it in 2008 and 2012 — and Democrats clearly want to restore it as a swing state, said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. Obama should help spur turnout, especially among black voters whose participation fell off in 2016, Beck said.

You’re seeing Republicans in Congress who are bending over backwards to try to shield and deflect oversight of this behaviour from scrutiny and accountability and consequences.

"The major factor in the 2018 mid-term elections is going to be Trump, both in terms of energising people in his base — which is what he, of course, is trying to do right now — but also in energising Democrats and people that are not particularly happy with Trump — which is the majority of the electorate," Beck said.

Trump is also pursuing an ambitious schedule of appearances, making the case that more Republicans must be elected to stop Democrats from obstructing his agenda. He canceled campaign events scheduled this week in Missouri and Mississippi due to Hurricane Florence.

Obama selected Cordray as the first director of the CFPB, established after the 2008 financial crisis to police mortgages, credit cards and other products. Cordray resigned last year to run for governor. Trump replaced him with budget director Mick Mulvaney, and Republicans are trying to make Cordray’s tenure an issue in the Ohio race.

"Cordray will destroy your state," Trump said during the August 24 Ohio Republican Party state dinner in Columbus. "He spent the last six years in Washington trying to regulate community banks."

Mulvaney has been praised by Republicans for exercising restraint at an agency they saw as unaccountable, while liberals, led by senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who helped create the bureau, have accused him of dismantling it and putting consumers at risk.

During his speech in Cleveland, Obama lauded Cordray’s work at the CFPB, including enforcement actions against banks and other institutions that he said had secured $12bn in recoveries for consumers. "He didn’t go around trying to take credit for it. He didn’t tweet about it, he just did it."