Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail on Thursday , railing against the “ politics of division” after keeping a low profile and avoiding direct confrontation with his White House successor since leaving office.
Speaking at a rally in New Jersey to support the Democratic Party candidate for governor, the 56- year – old former president took aim at the fear and bitterness that marked the 2016 campaign which led to Donald Trump ’ s presidency .
“What we can ’ t have is the same old politics of division that we have seen so many times before, that dates back centuries, ” Obama said at the event in Newark for Phil Murphy.
“Some of the politics we see now , we thought we put that to bed. That’ s folks looking 50 years back , ” Obama added . “ It’ s the 21 st century , not the 19th century . ”
Obama later appeared at an event in Richmond to support Ralph Northam , his party ’ s gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, at which he obliquely criticized the way Trump gained the White House .
“If you have to win a campaign by dividing people , you ’ re not going to be able to govern them. You won ’ t be able to unite them later , ” Obama said .
“We are at our best not when we are trying to put people down , but when we are trying to lift everybody up , ” he said .
Voters in both New Jersey and Virginia will decide the contests on November 7 , one year after Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton and stormed into the White House on a wave of anti – establishment fury .
The races are potential indicators of voter sentiment ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, which will be a major test for Trump and his Republican Party .
University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said the New Jersey and Virginia governor races are the only “big elections” for 2017.
“What’ s at stake is bragging rights headed into the 2018 midterm elections, ” Sabato told AFP.
Obama has remained largely detached from the political debate since leaving office on January 20, in keeping with presidential tradition .
Trump has meanwhile used his first nine months in the White House to methodically demolish key Obama administration policies.
After three months of vacation Obama began writing his memoirs . He has said little in public and granted almost no interviews.
Test for Trump
The few times Obama broke his silence was to comment on issues of national importance , such as immigration , health care and climate change .
In New Jersey , Murphy is the clear frontrunner to succeed Republican Governor Chris Christie , a Trump ally whose popularity has plummeted to record lows .
New Jersey “ is a runaway win for the Democrats , so Virginia is the only competitive contest . Obama is needed much more in Richmond than Trenton , ” said Sabato, referring to the capitals of the two states .
Virginia is a pivotal state and the only southern US state that Clinton won in 2016 . Its importance is amplified by its proximity to the capital Washington .
“If the GOP loses in Virginia , Trump will be widely blamed since he is so unpopular in a state carried by Hillary Clinton , ” Sabato said .
Should Republicans win Virginia’ s governorship , “ then Trump will not be viewed as such a liability for the GOP in 2018. ”
In Richmond, Obama backed Northam, the state ’ s lieutenant governor who was credited Wednesday with a slight lead over Republican Ed Gillespie in a Quinnipiac poll.
More than six hours ahead of the event in Richmond, student Lucas Anderton was in the queue for tickets .
“It ’ s important for me , he ’ s my hero and so it ’ s nice to see him out in the battle again , ” Anderton said .
“I am hoping that he does something to speak to the African- American population, I really do , because we are in need of a strong leader, ” said Nancy Atkins , who was waiting to enter the venue ahead of Obama’ s Richmond speech .
“We need a Martin Luther King to step up , and I can see the former president Obama as being that leader, ” Atkins said .
Well aware of the vote ’ s importance, Trump has backed Gillespie and accused Northam of “ fighting for the violent MS – 13 ” Hispanic gang , as well as “sanctuary cities ” that offer shelter to illegal immigrants .
Gillespie , a former advisor to president George W . Bush who has become a millionaire lobbyist, has so far kept cautious distance from the mercurial Trump , whose backing recently failed to ensure the election of his pick in a Republican Senate race in Alabama.