NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — People arrived early and were waiting in line for hours Thursday as former President Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail to stump for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia.
Thursday's events to fire up Democrats ahead of the Nov. 7 elections in both states mark the first time the former president is stepping back into the political spotlight since leaving the White House in January.
Obama is hoping to sway voters in New Jersey and Virginia, the only two gubernatorial races this year. Both Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, are term-limited. Those Nov. 7 races will be considered a bellwether of Democrats' strength in the face of Republican President Donald Trump's victory last year.
Obama was to drop in Thursday afternoon on campaign workers in Newark, New Jersey, for a private "canvass kickoff" for Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, who is running against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
Diane Coleman, 70, of Jersey City, was among the first wave of people let into the room where Obama was to speak. The Democrat who oversees real estate records for one of the state's largest counties said she voted for Obama twice and would vote for him again if he could run again. She emphasized that speaking negatively about Trump could alienate some voters.
"This is a great opportunity to see my president," she said. "I don't want to say anything bad about Donald Trump."
After the Newark stop, the former president will head to Richmond, Virginia, to rally support for Democrat Ralph Northam in his campaign against Republican Ed Gillespie.
Obama's appearance should serve to unify Democrats, who are out of power in the federal government and in most statehouses across the country, experts say.
"I think Obama also is a reminder to Democrats of all stripes — left, center — that there was a time when Trump was not here, sort of the nostalgia of the pre-Trump days," said Seton Hall University associate political science professor Matthew Hale.
Obama is planning more public appearances as the year closes, and preparation for the 2018 midterm elections begins.
"Obama seems to be determined to be an engaged and active former president who's playing a role in different issues and is involved in politics," Rutgers University professor David Greenberg said.
At the end of the month, Obama will go to Chicago to head up his first Obama Foundation leadership summit on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, bringing in speakers like England's Prince Harry, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and artists like Gloria Estefan, Chance the Rapper and indie rock band The National.
Obama's popularity is still undeniable. In an August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 51 percent of Americans said they have a favorable opinion of Obama, while 35 percent had a negative opinion. In the same poll, 36 percent said they had a positive opinion of Trump and 52 percent had a negative opinion.
Obama never completely disappeared from public life, in part because of Trump's constant criticism and efforts to undo much of Obama's legacy after eight years in office. He has publicly defended his policies that Trump and the GOP-led Congress have set out to dismantle: the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allowed immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to be temporarily shielded from deportation.
Obama was forced to return "pretty quickly," presidential historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University said.
"The current president has changed all the conventional assumptions about what to do," Zelizer said. "There is a sense of urgency that makes this moment different than others and former President Obama has continued to be directly in Trump's line of fire — both his policies and his legacy."