The president told supporters at the Aragon Entertainment Center that the nation doesn’t have time to “play these partisan games.”
Although Obama doesn’t turn 50 until Thursday, his visit symbolized presidentially and politically a need to turn the corner following weeks of bruising debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling and cutting the country’s deficit.
It wasn’t until Tuesday, the deadline for the nation’s borrowing ability to expire, that he was able to finally sign a deal into law. By then, the president’s job approval ratings had tumbled and he faced criticism that Democrats had compromised too greatly by accepting Republican demands for spending cuts without getting new revenues in return.
The toll of that fight on Obama’s presidency, particularly in light of his 2008 election mantra of change in Washington, gave a special emphasis to what has become a standard in his early re-election campaign — a request for patience.
“It’s been a long, tough year. But we have made some incredible strides together. Yes, we have. But the thing we all have to remember is, as much good as we’ve done, precisely because the challenges were so daunting, precisely because we were inheriting so many challenges, that we’re not even halfway there yet,” he said.
“Now, when I said change we can believe it, I didn’t say, ‘Change we can believe in tomorrow.’ Not, ‘Change we can believe in next week,’ “ he said. “We knew this was going to take time because we’ve got this big, messy tough democracy.”
Returning to Chicago for the first time since April, Obama stepped off Air Force One at O’Hare International Airport and shared a hug with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff. Then it was off to two fundraisers on the North Side.
Obama arrived at a dimly lit and sticky warm concert hall as Herbie Hancock performed. Some of the estimated 2,400 people in attendance, who paid at least $50, wore cone-shaped birthday hats with the number “50” and the campaign’s logo. Obama capped the evening with a dinner of 100 donors who paid $35,800 apiece and got a slice of a two-layer birthday cake from Eli's, one layer chocolate, the other carrot cake.
Before that, Obama talked via teleconference to more than 1,100 “house parties” organized by his re-election campaign. The parties served as both a place to celebrate Obama’s birthday and to conduct strategic re-election organizing.
Meanwhile, the main crowd in Chicago was entertained by singer-actor Jennifer Hudson, the hometown band OK Go, and Hancock. Hudson led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” as Obama, without a suit coat, came on stage.
Obama nodded to the debate in Washington over potential cuts to Medicare, the federal health-care program for seniors, as part of future deficit reduction talks.
“It is true I turn 50 tomorrow, which means that by the time I wake up I’ll have an e-mail from AARP asking me to call President Obama and tell him to protect Medicare,” he joked, citing nation’s largest lobbying organization for seniors.
But even in friendly Chicago, Obama faced inevitable protests.
Across the street from the Aragon, about four dozen people protested what they said are aggressive deportation policies against illegal immigrants. They crowded around a cardboard birthday cake on which “Happy birthday, Deportation President” was scrawled while one waved a sign, “We hoped for better.”
Republicans preemptively mocked Obama’s visit before he arrived, noting that in a nation with a troubling jobless rate and uncertain economy, the president was out raising campaign cash.
“Right now, our economy’s in the ditch. We’re spending more money than we can afford. We’ve lost 2.5 million jobs since this president’s taken office, yet the only job Barack Obama seems to be concerned with is his own,” said Reince Priebus, the national Republican chairman, on a conference call with reporters.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential contender, also weighed in with a video jab.
The campaign video contrasted a crowded and joyous Grant Park for Obama’s election night victory in 2008 with an empty Grant Park with a biting-sounding wind blowing loudly. Statistics pointed out the city’s struggles with the economy and unemployment.
Emanuel defended his former boss from Romney’s criticism.
“I’d just like to note to the governor, in case he needs a rendezvous with his record, when he was governor, Massachusetts (lagged behind) in job production,” said Emanuel, at a news conference unrelated to Obama’s visit. “In case he forgot that, I’d like to remind him of that.”