Former President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of 2,000 outside James Branch Cabell Library
Former President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of 2,000 outside James Branch Cabell Library on Saturday. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

2,000 turn out at VCU to see Barack Obama speak in support of Terry McAuliffe

The former president and other public figures, including Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, spoke at a rally for McAuliffe outside James Branch Cabell Library on Saturday.

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Thousands of members of the Virginia Commonwealth University and Richmond communities gathered Saturday on the Compass as former President Barack Obama spoke in support of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s 72nd governor from 2014-18, is facing Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin and Liberation Party candidate Princess Blanding in the Nov. 2 election.

Saturday’s rally was sponsored by the student organization Young Democrats at VCU, in partnership with McAuliffe’s campaign. VCU was not a sponsor of the event. It was Obama’s first visit to VCU since 2012, when he launched his re-election bid for the White House at the Stuart C. Siegel Center before a crowd of 8,000.

“It is good to be back in Virginia,” Obama said. “… It is so great to see you on this beautiful day. I am so grateful to the Young Democrats at VCU for hosting us. It’s good to see some young idealism. Young activists getting out there and doing it. I could not be prouder of you.”

Barack Obama and Terry McAuliffe outside James Branch Cabell Library
Barack Obama and Terry McAuliffe. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)
Barack Obama addresses a crowd of 2,000 outside James Branch Cabell Library on Saturday. Terry McAuliffe sits behind Obama
Obama addresses the crowd outside James Branch Cabell Library. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)
Barack Obama waves to a crowd at VCU.
Obama waves to the crowd. “It is good to be back in Virginia,” the former president said. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Obama encouraged the crowd to vote, highlighting issues such as climate change, the future of democracy and the economy as the country recovers from COVID-19. More than 2,000 people attended the event in front of James Branch Cabell Library, including VCU sophomores Mark Jones and Kaila Simon Jones.

“I believe the governor race is important,” said Mark Jones, who is double majoring in political science and mass communications in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “The race is getting tighter between McAuliffe and Youngkin. And I think coming here will help the younger voters to turn out more. I think it's important.”

“I came because he signed me up for it, but really I would have wanted to come regardless because Obama was here,” added Kaila Simon Jones, an accounting major in the School of Business, “but also just to broaden my knowledge on the political race.”

In addition to Obama and McAuliffe, the rally featured Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Hala Ayala and Attorney General Mark Herring, who is running for re-election, as well as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, U.S. Reps. Donald McEachin and Bobby Scott, McAuliffe’s wife, Dorothy McAuliffe, and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

“I ran my first race nearly 28 years ago: Second District, Richmond City Council. The heart of the district was this VCU campus,” Kaine said. “I was like a nobody with my little clipboard. ‘Will you sign my petition, sir, so I can get on the ballot?’ ‘I don’t know, you look kind of like a knucklehead, but OK I’ll sign it.’ I have so many good memories connected with this place and with so many of you.”

A highly engaged campus

VCU students have historically been highly engaged in voter participation. In the 2018 midterm elections, 48.6% of registered VCU voters cast a ballot, compared with the national voting rate of 39.1% across all college campuses. In the 2016 presidential election, 61.5% of VCU students voted, outpacing the national voting rate of 50.4% among all higher education institutions, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement.

This fall, VCU was recognized as one of the country’s best colleges for student voting. And in 2019, VCU received a Gold Seal award from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for its high rate of campus voter participation.

Terry McAuliffe standing on a stage at VCU in front of 2,000 people
Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe addresses the crowd on Saturday, Oct. 23. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Saturday’s rally with Obama was one of several McAuliffe events featuring national Democrats in the final stretch of the campaign. VCU political science experts said Democrats hope it’ll help carry McAuliffe to victory, but it remains to be seen if the strategy will work.

Amanda Wintersieck, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said McAuliffe is hoping to generate enthusiasm among Democratic voters at a time when President Joe Biden is unpopular and the national Democratic agenda has yet to come to fruition.

“McAuliffe is trying to re-energize his base by reminding voters that he’s tied to relatively popular Democratic figures like Obama and [Stacey] Abrams,” she said. “However, it's unclear that these efforts will go far enough to re-engage more progressive Democrats and young voters.”

Jatia Wrighten, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, said the rally was a move by McAuliffe to leverage Obama’s popularity and recapture the success surrounding his gubernatorial win in 2013 that came amid ongoing excitement among Democrats over Obama’s victory a year earlier.

“Many observers would say it’s more of the same and in many ways highlights the core issue for the Democratic Party. The Democrats tend to play it safe — relying on the past and what worked before without considering the changing political landscape. President Obama is still largely popular and this strategy may be effective, but it is neither innovative nor new,” Wrighten said. “This new generation will probably respond positively to Obama, but even he may feel dated in comparison to newer progressives like ‘The Squad’ [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan].”

“Amazing Spider-Man, #583,” a 2009 comic that features President Obama
While at VCU on Saturday, Obama took a moment to sign VCU Libraries’ copy of “Amazing Spider-Man, #583,” a 2009 comic that features Obama and that was the 2-millionth volume acquired for VCU Libraries’ collection. (Courtesy of VCU Libraries)

Comic book signing at Cabell Library

While at VCU on Saturday, Obama took a moment to sign VCU Libraries’ copy of “Amazing Spider-Man, #583,” a 2009 comic book that features Obama and that was the 2-millionth volume acquired for VCU Libraries’ collection.

The comic is part of the Comic Arts Collection in Special Collections and Archives at Cabell Library, which features more than 175,000 items, including more than 125,000 comic books, of which 60,000 are available for research.

“We selected this comic book as our 2-millionth volume to honor the first African American president of the United States and to signify VCU Libraries’ commitment to building diversity in all areas of our collections,” said Yuki Hibben, interim head and curator of books and art, Special Collections and Archives. “We are thrilled that former President Obama would take the time to sign VCU’s copy of ‘Amazing Spider-Man, #583’ and welcome everyone to visit Special Collections and Archives to see it.”