There are jabs at Trump’s ego, with Obama telling supporters at a drive-in rally today in Michigan: “He’s still worried about his inauguration crowd being smaller than mine! Did no one come to his birthday party when he was a kid? Was he traumatised? What’s with crowds?”
There are criticisms of Trump’s ability to govern, with Obama needling the President for failing to view his job “as anything more than a reality show that can give him the attention he craves — and he does crave attention”.
And then there are Obama’s most potent messages, centred on Trump’s handling of coronavirus, which is surging across most US states again.
The issue flared up this weekend when Trump suggested, without evidence, that doctors were profiteering from COVID-19 deaths. “You know our doctors get more money if somebody dies from COVID,” he told a rally on Saturday (AEST).
Today, appearing alongside Biden for two rallies in Michigan, Obama was all too happy to fire back.
“Who says that? You’ve got doctors who are risking their lives to save other people … and he’s saying they’re doing that to make a buck.”
But while there’s little doubt Obama is having fun, the question of how much it’s helping Biden’s campaign is a valid point.
After all, the former president stumped for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but enthusiasm remained unexpectedly low among critical voting blocs: note, for example, the lack of turnout among black voters in Wisconsin, which was part of the “blue wall” that ended up falling to Trump.
Obama’s record is not without controversy. Indeed, even his appearance with Biden in the town of Flint today was a reminder of the 2014 water contamination crisis that occurred while they were in office.
What’s more, by the time Obama took to the stage in Detroit, more than 90 million ballots had already been cast, suggesting that many Americans have already made up their minds about who should be the next US president.
Still, for an election that both candidates describe as the most consequential in a lifetime, neither Biden nor Trump can afford to leave anything to chance.
To that end, Obama is a potentially powerful weapon for his former VP. He attests to Biden’s “character and experience” for those who might remain unconvinced that the 77-year-old has what it takes to handle the top job.
He acts as Biden’s chief attack dog against Trump, so that the presidential candidate doesn’t undercut his central message: unity over division.
And he remains a widely popular figure among Democrats, bringing to the campaign a vibe and energy that Biden lacks (the incredible three-pointer he delivered at a basketball court earlier, which has now gone viral on Twitter, is a case in point).
Obama’s central role, however, is less about personality and more about persuading people to vote, particularly young voters and people of colour in the battleground states where he’s been deployed for the final stretch of the race.
Along with Michigan, these states include Pennsylvania (where working class voters turned against Clinton in 2016); Florida (where a lack of turnout among Latino voters in recent days has worried some Democrats); and Georgia (a Republican state that Biden’s campaign believes is now within reach.)
The importance of such a role shouldn’t be underestimated in the context of an election that Trump has sought to delegitimise by casting doubt about the validity of mail-in ballots.
It also goes to the heart of an issue Obama knows all too well: voter suppression and disenfranchisement, particularly when it comes to black and brown communities.
Stevie Wonder summed it up when he kicked off the rally in Detroit, performing his aptly titled song, Can’t Put It In The Hands of Fate.
“Voting is not about making things perfect; it’s about making things better,” Obama declared.
“The fact that we don’t get 100 per cent of what we want is not a good reason not to vote. It’s a reason to keep voting until we do get it right.”
Farrah Tomazin is a senior journalist covering the 2020 US presidential election.