At Obama’s birthday party, a warm embrace from die-hard supporters

After a month when he was battered by both sides of the political aisle in partisan Washington, President Obama returned to his home town a day before his 50th birthday, the first step in reenergizing his embattled base.

Greeting 2,400 cheering supporters who paid as much as $35,800 to get inside the campaign fundraising party, Obama took the stage at the Aragon Entertainment Center after an introduction from his former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), and a birthday song from performers Jennifer Hudson, Herbie Hancock and OK Go.

“It’s good to be among friends,” Obama told the crowd, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the humid ballroom. “I could not have asked for a better early birthday present than being here with all of you. I love you back.”

It was a markedly different atmosphere than the heated, bare-knuckles politics during the high-stakes negotiations to raise the country’s debt limit and reduce the deficit.

Though Congress and the president agreed on a $2.4 trillion deficit-reduction deal, Obama was criticized by his liberal base for failing to secure tax increases along with the steep spending cuts. Recent polls show Obama’s approval ratings at record lows.

His return to Chicago marked the first stop on a road trip that will include a Midwest bus tour in mid-August, when the president will push a message that his administration is focused on jobs and the economy.

With unemployment at 9.2 percent in June, up from 7.8 percent in January 2009, Obama has been hammered by his GOP presidential rivals on both counts.

“We did what was needed to get the economy growing, and it’s growing, ” Obama told the crowd.

Alluding to his 2008 campaign, he added: “When I said ‘change you can believe in,’ I didn’t say ‘change you can believe in tomorrow, change you can believe in next week.’ It is going to take time.”

This crowd was more than willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. Though he didn’t stay overnight, and his family did not accompany him, the partygoers were enthusiastic. Dozens had waited in line since the morning.

Frances Rubio, 55, a pharmacy technician from Chicago, was the first inside.

“I totally agree with the way Barack Obama handled the debt ceiling,” said Rubio, who had donated $200 to the Obama campaign for her ticket. “I was totally against what the Republicans were trying to do. Even though there will have to be some [spending] cuts, we’re all going to have to chip in. I was hoping the rich would have had to contribute a little bit more, but I’m okay with the deal that was done. The fact we didn’t go under, didn’t lose our credit rating, was a good thing.”

Leo Henton, 52, a Boeing engineer from Seattle who was on vacation with his wife, Cynthia, said that Obama was realistic in the face of stiff Republican opposition to raising taxes and cut the best deal he could.

“My opinion is that the deal is for 10 years and there’s a trigger,” said Henton, who was third in line. “We’re in a recession right now, or what sure looks like a recession to me. The heavy cuts will not come in for another two years. He did the wise thing in terms of the deal.”

Not that the crowd didn’t think there are problems. Rubio said her 30-year-old daughter, a social worker, had lost her job and moved in with her before landing a gig at a charter school. Rubio, a Mexican American, said she also understands some of the complaints from the Latino community about the administration’s record on immigration reform.

By the time the Aragon doors opened in the late afternoon, about two dozen Latino activists were protesting outside. Holding signs, they chanted, “Yes you can, no deportation!” and “Hey, hey, Obama, don’t deport my mama!”

Police forced them to stay a block away as partygoers streamed into the venue.

But for the most part, it was a day for Obama to relax among friends. Before flying to Chicago, he took several members of his staff out for burgers and fries at Good Stuff Eatery on Capitol Hill, even buying lunch for a woman standing near the group.

At the Aragon, he conducted a video conference with supporters in several states and, after the concert, dined with 100 VIPs who had donated the maximum $35,800, which will be divided between the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

“No matter how tough a week I had in Washington, I know you’ve got my back,” he told the crowd in the ballroom. “When I travel to Chicago and across the country, I know we can’t be stopped.”

But, he said, “it is going to continue to be challenging every step of the way.”

Someone yelled from the floor: “But we can do it!”

“We can do it,” the president confirmed.

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