NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Former President Barack Obama called on fellow Democrats to reject politics of "division" and "fear" while rallying on Thursday with party's candidates for governors in Virginia and New Jersey.
"Why are we deliberately trying to misunderstand each other, and be cruel to each other and put each other down? That's not who we are," Obama said at the Virginia rally in front of several thousand supporters.
Stepping back into the political spotlight for the first time since leaving the White House in January, Obama did not mention President Donald Trump in his speeches at Richmond's convention center or at a Newark hotel. But he did tell crowds at both events that they could send a message to the rest of the country in the upcoming elections.
"Our democracy's at stake and it's at stake right here in Virginia," Obama said.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states electing new governors this year and those Nov. 7 races will be considered a bellwether of Democrats' strength in the face of Trump's victory last year.
New Jersey Democrat Phil Murphy, Obama's former ambassador to Germany, is facing Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is running against Republican Ed Gillespie.
Obama's remarks came on the same day Former President George W. Bush denounced bigotry in Trump-era American politics, warning that the rise of "nativism," isolationism and conspiracy theories have clouded the nation's true identity.
Obama bemoaned the rise of racial politics.
"Some of the politics we see now we thought we put that to bed," Obama said. "That's folks looking 50 years back. It's the 21st century, not the 19th century."
The first black president offered himself as proof that the country could move forward, telling the crowd in Richmond, the former Capitol of the Confederacy, that he is a distant relative to Confederate President Jefferson Davis on his mother's side.
"Think about that," Obama said. "I'll bet he's spinning in his grave."
Obama praised Northam, a pediatric neurologist, as a candidate who would represent Virginia well and accused Gillespie of running a fear-based campaign.
Gillespie spokesman Dave Abrams said Obama's comments were not a "surprise."
Guadagno's spokesman, Ricky Diaz, suggested it's Murphy and not Republicans who are divisive.
"Phil Murphy is the one who will divide New Jersey by raising taxes so high that only the über rich like him will be able to afford to live here," he said.
Obama's popularity is still undeniable. In an August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 51 percent of Americans said they have a favorable opinion of Obama, while 35 percent had a negative opinion. In the same poll, 36 percent said they had a positive opinion of Trump and 52 percent had a negative opinion.
Obama never completely disappeared from public life, in part because of Trump's constant criticism and efforts to undo much of Obama's legacy after eight years in office. He has publicly defended his policies that Trump and the GOP-led Congress have set out to dismantle: the Affordable Care Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allowed immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to be temporarily shielded from deportation.
Obama was forced to return "pretty quickly," presidential historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University said.
"The current president has changed all the conventional assumptions about what to do," Zelizer said. "There is a sense of urgency that makes this moment different than others and former President Obama has continued to be directly in Trump's line of fire -- both his policies and his legacy."
Les Kenney, of Richmond, said Obama's speech was inspiring.
"It was great to see him again, he's an energizer," he said.
Associated Press writers Jesse J. Holland and Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.