Former President Barack Obama described Herschel Walker as “a celebrity that wants to be a politician” during a speech Friday night in Georgia, lauding the Republican Senate nominee as “one of the best running backs of all time,” but someone who is not equipped to be a United States senator.
Obama went point-for-point against Walker, calling him “someone who carries around a phony badge and says he is in law enforcement like a kid playing cops and robbers,” attacking his “issues of character” and his “habit of not telling the truth,” and describing him as someone who is going to be so loyal to former President Donald Trump “it means he is not going to be really thinking about you or your needs.”
The speech, the former Democratic president’s first full foray onto the campaign trail in 2022, framed the midterms as a choice election “between politicians who seem willing to do anything to get power and leaders who share our values, who see you and care about you.”
“Just about every Republican politician seems obsessed with two things – owning the libs and getting Donald Trump’s approval,” Obama said. “That’s their agenda, it is not long, it is not complicated and, at least to me, it is not very inspiring. They aren’t interested in actually solving problems. They are interested in making you angry and finding someone to blame. Because that way you may not notice that they have got not answers of their own.”
Obama was greeted with booming applause inside the Gateway Center Arena in College Park, Georgia. At several points, he delivered one of his old campaign classics: “Don’t boo, vote!”
He acknowledged the economic headwinds facing Democrats in November, saying: “Listen, inflation is a real problem right now. It’s not just in America, it’s world-wide. It’s one of the legacies of the pandemic.”
But he suggested Republicans have not offered policies or plans of their own, saying: “Republicans talk a lot about it, but what is their answer? What are their economic policies?”
Yet Obama’s most pointed commentary was aimed at Walker, calling his race against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, which is key to control of the evenly split Senate, a “study in contrast.”
The commentary opened with a compliment of Walker, a legendary football player at the University of Georgia who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982.
“Now there are a lot of young people here, yes, that makes me excited. Some of you may not remember, but Herschel Walker was a heck of a football player,” Obama said. “In college, he was amazing. One of the best running backs of all time. But here is the question: Does that make him the best person to represent you in the US Senate? Does that make him equipped to weigh in on the critical decisions about our economy and our foreign policy and our future?”
Obama then joked that just because Walker won the Heisman, it doesn’t mean the audience would let him fly a plane they were on or do surgery on them without knowing whether he was qualified.
“By the way, the opposite is true too. You may have liked me as president, but you wouldn’t want me starting at tailback by the dogs,” he said. “I mean, can you imagine my slow, old skinny behind getting hit by some 300 pound defensive tackle who runs a 4.6 40 (yard dash)? You would have to scrape me off the field. No, I can’t. No, I can’t. I am good at a lot of things but that would not be one of those things that I am good at.”
But then Obama laid into the Republican.
“There is very little evidence that he has taken any interest, bothered to learn anything about or displayed any kind of inclination towards public service or volunteer work or helping people in anyway,” Obama said, later nodding to Trump by arguing that Walker appears to be a “celebrity that wants to be a politician and we have seen how that goes.”
Then Obama raised Walker’s “issues of character,” an apparent reference to the allegations that he paid for two women to terminate their pregnancies.
Walker, who has previously advocated for a national ban on abortions with no exceptions, has denied the claims.
Obama said Walker was “in the habit of not telling the truth, being in the habit of saying one thing and doing another, being in the habit of having certain rules for you and your important friends and other rules for everybody else.”
“That says something about the kind of leader you are going to be,” he added. “And if a candidate’s main qualification is that he is going to be loyal to Donald Trump, it means he is not going to be really thinking about you or your needs.”
Walker pushed back on Obama’s comments in a statement Saturday.
“President Obama was here last night. He said I’m a celebrity. He got that one wrong, didn’t he? I’m not a celebrity, I’m a warrior for God,” the GOP nominee said.
Walker also said he would pray for Obama, who he said picked the “wrong horse” by endorsing Warnock.
“He needs some help because he got with the wrong horse. Senator Warnock is the wrong horse. You know he can’t do the job, and it’s time for him to leave,” Walker said.
Obama was not the only Democrat to step up the rhetoric against Walker – Warnock, too, used his speech introducing the former president to call out his Republican opponent by name.
Reflecting the worry among Democrats that the race is tight, Warnock urged Georgians to consider the consequences of the election, saying, “A vote is your voice, your voice is your human dignity.”
In his remarks to booming applause in the crowd, Warnock directly confronted his rival – echoing Obama’s critique that Walker is not ready.
“Simply put, Herschel Walker is not ready,” Warnock said. “He’s not ready. He’s not ready. Not only is he not ready, he’s not fit.”
Warnock, who has said his Republican opponent struggles with the truth, added later, “If we can’t trust him to tell the truth about his life, how we can trust him to protect our lives and our families and our children and our jobs and our future?”
Obama spent less time focusing on Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, despite Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams speaking during the event. Obama noted some of the voting laws Kemp and Republicans in Georgia passed in the wake of the 2018 election, but was far less direct.
Instead, the former president offered more broad thoughts about the midterms.
“I get why people are anxious. I get why you might be worried. I understand why it might be tempting just to tune out, to watch football or ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” Obama said. “But I am here to tell you that tuning out is not an option. Despair is not an option. The only way to make this economy fairer is if we, all of us, fight for it. The only way to save democracy is if we, together, nurture and fight for it.”
He added: “The fundamental question that you should be asking yourself right now is who will fight for you? Who cares about you? Who sees you? Who believes in you? That is the choice in this election.”
Although Obama spent less time on the governor’s race, the arena erupted in chants of “Stacey! Stacey! Stacey!” as Abrams took the stage before the former president. She invoked the history of Obama’s own election in 2008 – and reelection in 2012 – and implored voters to believe that she can overtake Kemp, who polls show has an edge in the race.
“We defied the conventional wisdom to deliver generational change,” Abrams said, “and we’re about to do it again, Georgia, we’re about to do it again.”
She added: “We defied history again and again and we will do it on November 8 because that is who we are. We are one Georgia, and we believe in ourselves, and we believe in tomorrow.”
Hours before Obama arrived, long lines stretched around the Gateway Center Arena in College Park, just outside of Atlanta. Aides with clipboards and laptop computers passed through the crowd, signing people up for volunteer campaign shifts to go door-to-door this weekend.
Above all, officials said, the event was intended to be an organizing tool.
“Having President Obama here shows that we are still fighting, we are pushing toward Election Day,” Rep. Nikema Williams, who is also chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, told CNN. “It’s about bringing people together and exciting voters who are still looking for inspiration during this election cycle.”
More than 1.3 million people had already voted in Georgia by Friday, according to the secretary of state’s office, with one more week remaining in the early voting period.
Inside the arena, a DJ warmed up the capacity crowd of about 6,000 people, with Democrats waving signs for Warnock, Abrams and other state and local candidates on the ballot.
“Vote early, now through November 4,” screamed large blue signs in the arena. “Election Day: November 8.”
This story has been updated with additional reaction.