PHILADELPHIA — Accusing Republicans of fanning hate, President Barack Obama stepped in Tuesday to defend a bruised and temporarily benched Hillary Clinton, hoping to reassure Democrats nervous about their presidential candidate’s health and her handling of fresh trouble on her campaign.
Speaking at an outdoor rally in a Democratic stronghold, Obama praised Clinton as the most qualified candidate ever to seek the office and mocked her opponent Donald Trump as “not fit in any way” to lead. He suggested Clinton was again the victim of unfair treatment and a scandal machine that has dogged her throughout her long political career.
“What sets Hillary apart is that through it all she just keeps on going and she doesn’t stop caring and she doesn’t stop trying and she never stops fighting for us even if we haven’t always appreciated it,” Obama said. “I understand, we’re a young country, we are a restless country. We always like the new shiny thing. I benefited from that when I was a candidate, and we take for granted sometimes what is steady and true. And Hillary Clinton is steady and she is true.”
The remarks were the closest Obama came to mentioning Clinton’s rough weekend, during which she disparaged “half” of Trump supporters and then backtracked somewhat on her remarks. She also was forced to abruptly leave an event because of an illness she had not disclosed. Clinton was caught on video struggling to stay on her feet. Her campaign later said she been diagnosed with pneumonia. Clinton canceled campaign events this week to recover, but is due back on the trail Thursday.
Her campaign said she spent Tuesday reading briefing material, making calls and watching Obama’s speech on television.
The incident and the campaign’s attempt to keep the diagnosis secret revived long-held concerns about Clinton’s tendency to hunker down during a crisis, making matters worse.
To an audience of roughly 6,000 supporters in downtown Philadelphia, Obama argued that Clinton has been more transparent in providing health and financial records than her rival, as well as releasing her past tax returns while Trump refuses to release his.
Obama said the Clinton Foundation has “saved countless lives around the world,” while Trump used his charity to buy “a six-foot-tall painting of himself,” Obama said, referencing a Washington Post investigation of Trump’s charity.
“I mean, you know, he had the taste not to go for the 10-foot version,” he said.
Obama is seeking to generate momentum — and some passion — for Clinton in a race that has become uncomfortably close for many Democratic supporters. The latest poll by Quinnipiac University found her with a 5 percentage-point edge over Trump in Pennsylvania.
Obama’s event at an outdoor plaza in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was his third for Clinton, including his speech at the Democratic National Convention, also in Philadelphia. The president, who remains broadly popular among the Democratic base, is viewed as a key asset in pushing die-hard Democrats to the polls, especially in battleground state urban centers such as Philadelphia.
Greeted with chants of “Thank you!” the president sought to trade on that popularity. He told the crowd that he’s enthusiastically behind Clinton — and they should be, too — a sort of acknowledgement of lack of enthusiasm among the ranks about Clinton’s bid.
“Look, can I just say I am really into electing Hillary Clinton. Like this not me going through the motions here,” he said. “I really, really, really want to elect Hillary Clinton.”
Obama also appealed to Trump supporters. He tried to undermine the Republican businessman’s claim as a working-class hero. He accused Trump of being unprepared, unserious and “not a facts guy.” He seized on Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Obama cast as an authoritarian strongman who controls the media and crushes dissent.
“Can you imagine Ronald Reagan idolizing somebody like that?” Obama said, invoking the Republican icon.
Branding Republicans as promoting “a dark vision,” the president said, “They’re not offering serious solutions — they’re just fanning resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate.”
Obama reserved part of his speech to “vent” about the media, arguing that news organizations have treated Clinton unfairly and applied what he described as a false equivalence when covering the campaigns’ troubles.
“You don’t grade the presidency on a curve,” he said. “This is serious business.”
Trump’s campaign met Obama with a statement suggesting he was shirking his duties.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” it read. “President Obama would rather campaign for Hillary Clinton than solve major problems facing the country.”
Trump was scheduled to campaign later Tuesday in a Philadelphia suburb. Pennsylvania, which was carried by a Democratic nominee in the past six elections, is viewed as essential for Trump’s chances of achieving the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.
Obama built some fundraising into this campaign day. In Philadelphia, he attended a closed fundraiser for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. About 25 attendees, who contributed $33,400 each, were expected to attend. The event hosts gave $100,000.
He then flew to New York City for a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser at the home of hedge-fund founder Jim Chanos.
Obama extended his critique of Trump to his Republican allies in the House. The president said Republicans are so disorganized and fragmented they can’t even agree on the “cockamamie legislation” they want to pass.
Obama pointed to a push to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen as an example. The effort is backed by some House conservatives but faces resistance from within the party. Obama on Tuesday called the effort “crazy.”
“No wonder people end up being discouraged and dispirited,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Thomas Beaumont contributed from Philadelphia.