Eight years after Hillary Clinton urged Democrats to put aside their skepticism and unite behind Barack Obama, the president flew to Charlotte Tuesday to do the same for her.
Looking relaxed and appearing to enjoy himself, Obama sat behind Clinton, smiling, nodding and leading the crowd in chants of “Hill-a-ry, Hill-a-ry.”
The Clinton campaign hopes the president’s support translates into votes in this battleground state, which Obama narrowly won in 2008 but lost in 2012.
It was their first joint appearance and came on a day with another significant development for the presumptive Democratic nominee: FBI Director James Comey announced that his agency won’t recommend Clinton face charges in the long-running probe into her use of a private email server when she served as Obama’s secretary of state. But he criticized her and her aides for “extremely careless” email practices and mishandling classified information.
Neither Obama nor Clinton mentioned or even alluded to the FBI findings. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that while the two spent time together aboard Air Force One they didn’t discuss the investigation or the FBI’s announcement.
The importance of Obama’s visit is underscored by the average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. It shows North Carolina in a statistical dead heat: Clinton with 44 percent of votes, Donald Trump with 43.3 percent. No Republican since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 has won the White House without carrying North Carolina.
“Hillary Clinton has to be the next president of the United States,” Obama said, echoing Clinton’s words about him in 2008 when she said, “He must be our president.”
“I’m here today because I believe in Hillary Clinton.”
He described her as smart, steady, compassionate and respected worldwide, a contrast to Trump. “This is not a reality show, this is reality,” Obama said. “You don’t have the luxury of just saying whatever pops into your head.”
‘North Carolina is ground zero’
Clinton called for policies popular among the Democratic base: Paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, gun control and continuation of the Affordable Care Act.
But neither she nor Obama addressed issues that some North Carolina supporters hoped they might: specifically, the new House Bill 2 law that bars local governments from enacting anti-discrimination protections.
Instead, the two politicians spent much of their time bragging on each other. They referenced their contentious primary fight in 2008 and described how they went from rivalry to friendship.
Behind them, a giant wall banner proclaimed the theme: “Stronger together.”
Clinton, who spoke first, praised Obama as “someone who has never forgotten where he came from.” To the delight of the crowd, she then deadpanned, “Donald, if you’re out there tweeting, it’s Hawaii.”
Obama, she said, is a president who knows how to keep America strong. Trump, on the other hand, “is simply unqualified and temperamentally unfit to be our president.”
“Can you imagine him sitting in the Oval Office the next time our country faces a crisis?”
Obama himself mocked Trump.
“Even Republicans on the other side don’t really know what the guy’s talking about,” the president said. “They don’t. … Am I joking? No.”
The rally drew more than 7,000 people to the Charlotte Convention Center – 5,500 in Hall C, where they spoke, and another 2,400 in overflow. Among those attending were Roy Cooper, the state attorney general who is hoping to unseat Gov. Pat McCrory, and Deborah Ross, who is locked in a fight with Sen. Richard Burr.
“We’re going to turn North Carolina blue in November,” Ross said, and Cooper echoed the sentiment.
“North Carolina is ground zero. Why else would our president and our next president choose North Carolina to campaign together for the first time?” he said. “They know we can win this state.”
Said U.S. Rep. Alma Adams: “Let’s help Hillary turn this mother out.”
Reaction to email probe
Many at the rally weren’t aware of the FBI decision earlier in the day about Clinton’s private email server. But they said Comey’s decision not to recommend charges didn’t surprise them.
Megan Brogan of Fort Mill said she trusts Clinton more than any candidate – even more than she trusted Obama when he first ran. “She’s got a track record. He was relatively inexperienced.”
But Comey called Clinton’s actions “extremely careless” and said it’s possible hostile powers gained access to her communications while she was secretary of state.
In advance of Comey’s announcement, N.C. Republican chairman Robin Hayes criticized the joint appearance by Clinton and Obama.
Hayes complained to reporters of the “absolute inequity and unfairness of a sitting president whose political appointee is the attorney general of the United States, whose running mate is endorsing a candidate under investigation by the FBI.”
On the cost of this trip to taxpayers, Earnest said the Clinton campaign will pay an ordinary share, through the Democratic National Committee: “The White House of course follows all of the rules and regulations that apply to presidential travel.”
None of that came up during the rally. Obama spoke instead of the “regard in which she was held in capitals all around the world” as secretary of state.
“Sometimes Hillary doesn’t get the credit she deserves,” Obama said. “Hillary is steady and Hillary is true and she’s in politics for the same reason I am ... so she can improve the lives of other people.”
Staff writers Tim Funk and Bruce Henderson contributed.