MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Former President Barack Obama has mostly stayed out of the political spotlight since he left office. That's pretty customary for former presidents. But yesterday, Obama abandoned those norms and moved back to center stage with a campaign-style speech in Illinois. Today, he was back at it, speaking at a political rally in Orange County, Calif. There are a handful of congressional races in California where Democrats hope to pick up seats in Congress. Mary Plummer of member station KPCC is with us now from the rally that ended earlier. Mary, thanks so much for joining us.
MARY PLUMMER, BYLINE: My pleasure.
MARTIN: So what kind of reception did the crowd give Obama?
PLUMMER: Well, this was a very Obama-friendly crowd. There were a few hundred people in attendance. It wasn't a public event. Folks did have to get tickets. Most of those tickets came from the local campaigns. Several times the crowd interrupted Obama as he was speaking with shouts of, we miss you. Obama, you know, appeared relaxed. The crowd seemed to really feed off of his energy. Some people drove a long ways to get here, several hours. And because security was very tight, that really meant waking up extremely early. This is definitely a big day for local Democrats.
MARTIN: So what did Obama have to say? What was his main message?
PLUMMER: You know, interesting, Obama did not mention President Trump by name, but he made references to deep divisions and challenges under the current administration. At one point during the speech, he warned the crowd, saying, quote, "if we don't step up, things can get worse." He also appealed to grassroots activists. Here's some tape of what he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
BARACK OBAMA: You can feel people saying, oh, enough is enough. We're going to kick off our bedroom slippers. We're putting on our marching shoes. We're going to go out. And we're going to start taking some clipboards out.
MARTIN: I saw that he even waved a clipboard at one point. I was watching the speech myself. But now, Orange County, as I understand it, is still a pretty Republican area, right? So how hopeful are the Democrats of making gains there?
PLUMMER: They're, you know, hopeful but cautious. I should mention back in 2016, one thing that kind of shifted things here is when voters made big news when they backed Hillary Clinton for president over Donald Trump in Orange County. So things are changing politically. We've got shifting demographics as a factor as well. It's interesting. I spoke to one Orange County woman named Kathleen Cory (ph). She lives in Huntington Beach. She told me she has essentially been working nonstop since 2016 to try and whip her congressional district. And she told me, in her view, Obama is like no one else.
KATHLEEN CORY: He's inspirational, as well as aspirational. So I don't think there's any other leader currently that is a Democrat that can turn out the base and possibly swing some independent voters.
PLUMMER: Kathleen's district is home to an extremely competitive race. Longtime Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher is competing there against Democrat Harley Rouda. Rouda is a former Republican. He joined Obama on stage today along with five other Democratic hopefuls.
MARTIN: So it was an attempt to rally the base of the party. I guess that's the question whether that Obama is effective in rallying the base for anybody other than his own campaign. So I guess that's the question. But so we are going to see more of him on the campaign trail over the next two months, I take it.
PLUMMER: We certainly are. You know, Obama has largely steered clear of purely political events until now, but that's all about to change. He's headed to Ohio next week to campaign for the Democratic nominee for governor there.
MARTIN: That is Mary Plummer of member station KPCC. Mary, thank you.
PLUMMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.