CHICAGO – President Obama made a delayed debut on the campaign rally circuit Sunday, bolstering Democratic gubernatorial candidates with just two weeks until the crucial midterm elections.
Obama headlined two rallies in two time zones, at a high school in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Sunday afternoon and in Chicago a few hours later. It is his second trip here this month to help the campaign of embattled Gov. Pat Quinn, who polls show is in a virtual dead heat with Republican Bruce Rauner.
Stepping out of the Washington area for the first time in more than a week, Obama basked in the glow of a hometown crowd of 6,200 at Chicago State University, many holding signs reading, "Fired Up, Ready to Vote!"
“The power to move our society, our government, it really is in your hands. I know it’s a cliché, and I know that around the country Republicans have been trying to make it harder for folks to vote, but the truth of the matter is so often we disempower ourselves,” Obama said, his voice raspsy.
"I've got to practice. I'm losing my voice," he said here during his second rally of the day -- and the year.
The president announced that he plans to vote for Quinn and Sen. Richard J. Durbin when early voting begins in Illinois tomorrow.
"I care about what happens here," he said.
Obama was scheduled to start campaigning last week but delayed a rally for Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy after a second Dallas nurse was diagnosed with Ebola. Obama huddled in the White House, convening meetings with top advisers and underscoring both the public health and political challenges of the cases in Dallas.
The White House said Obama will campaign in Pennsylvania, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin next week. He will campaign almost exclusively for Democratic governors; he is scheduled to stump for one congressional candidate, Gary Peters (Mich.).
In both rallies, Obama ticked off gains that have been made during his administration and goals, including equal pay for women and the expanded number of states where same-sex couples can marry. He stressed that the economy is improving, citing a lowered unemployment rate, job growth and the growth of once-stagnating sectors, including manufacturing.
But for a president who commended a bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, has spent much of the past year dealing with international crises in Ukraine and Israel and the Ebola epidemic, and is dealing with an economy that has not completely recovered, he was forced to sound notes of caution.
"We face a lot of challenges -- from stopping the spread of disease to combating violent extremism, to tackling climate change that threatens the world that we leave to our children," Obama said in Maryland.
"But the defining issue of our time, the defining challenge is making sure this economy works for every single American," he said in Maryland; in Chicago he pushed a ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage in the state.
Obama has dubbed 2014 his last campaign, but his foray onto the trail has been tardy for a president who has cast the Nov. 4 election as critical to his party and policies. Rather than hit the trail himself, Obama -- whose penchant for campaigning helped him ascend to office -- has dispatched first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden as surrogates because Democrats nationwide have shied from the president and his policies. Historically speaking, it's not a surprise -- Obama's approval rating is 40 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll -- just a touch ahead of where George W. Bush's approval rating stood ahead of the 2006 midterms.
Obama has spent much of his time raising millions of dollars for Democrats this year and singlehandedly helping edge his party to the black. He has given a stump speech of sorts to the fundraisers and in remarks on the economy throughout the summer, touting economic gains and reprising his campaign message of hope, change and fighting cynicism.
Obama is now bringing that message to the trail, on which he gingerly stepped earlier this month.
"You are the reason I had enough hope to run for the state Senate. That I had enough hope to think I could run for the United States Senate. That I had the audacity to actually run for the presidency of the United States," he said.
Obama held his his first campaign event here in Chicago -- a closed-door fundraiser for Quinn. He also delivered remarks on the economy at Northwestern University that sounded more like a stump speech and popped into the campaign office of a congressional candidate in Los Angeles.
Obama is now firing up crowds on friendly turf, including Chicago and Prince George’s County, Md., where 65 percent of the population is African American. In 2012, 97 percent of African American voters in Maryland supported Obama.
In Upper Marlboro, more than 8,000 people -- enough to warrant an overflow room -- came out to see Obama and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown. According to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, Brown holds a 9 percent lead over Republican Larry Hogan.
Obama was greeted by screams in a high school gymnasium, cheers that were reprised when he mentioned a lowered unemployment rate and universal health care.
"There are no excuses. The future is up to us. If you want better policies out of Washington, then you’ve got to vote for it," he said. "If you want good policies to continue in Maryland, you’ve got to vote for it."
Obama was interrupted by a man protesting immigration policy. The man was escorted out and Obama lambasted Republicans for stalling on immigration reform -- and more.
"They are a broken record. They keep on offering the same, tired, worn-out theories," he said.
A number of people streamed out of the gym midway through Obama’s remarks, leaving patches of empty yellow bleachers. It is not clear why they left; many people had to park far from the school.
Obama appeared energized and relaxed in Chicago and pointed out a guy named Michael Jordan -- not the Chicago Bulls star, but an insurance agent who campaigned for Obama. He also ribbed Quinn, whom he hailed as a politician who fights for the little guy.
"You don't want somebody who's too slick," Obama said. "You know he's not spending money on his wardrobe."
This post has been updated.