“Chicago, just like you did in 2008, you can defy the conventional wisdom, the kind that says you can’t overcome cynicism in politics,” Obama said, adding: “In three days you’ve got the chance to once again say what?
“Yes we can!” the crowd shouted back.
Mr. Obama’s appearance at the Midway Plaisance, a strip of land buffering the University of Chicago in Hyde Park with Woodlawn to the South, was his first major speech in his adopted hometown since the jubilant rally in Grant Park on the city’s lakefront election night, an occasion that is still talked about here with reverence.
The Saturday event certainly had elements of that time. Obama remains Chicago’s favorite son, and that’s especially true on the South Side, where T-shirts and caps with the president’s likeness are common sights, even when the man himself is not in town.
But in this midterm election season, where Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who is running for Obama’s former US Senate seat, could lose Tuesday, the president’s hallmark theme of change may not work in favor of Democrats.
Throughout this season, Democratic incumbents are struggling to hold onto US senate and congressional seats as well as governorships from challengers who have successfully redirected middle class anger at the establishment, whether in Washington or at the statehouse.
In his speech Saturday, Obama acknowledged the change in tone from two years earlier.
“Some of the excitement we had at Grant Park, that fades away. Some of the excitement of Inauguration Day … I know that good feeling starts slipping away,” he said. “You see somebody lose their home, and it gets you discouraged. And then you see all these TV ads … and everything just feels negative. And maybe some of you stop believing.”
He countered the disillusionment with numbers, arguing that the slowdown in job growth and average household income can be tracked to the beginning of the decade, not just the past two years.
“We lost almost 8 million jobs before any of our economic policies had a chance to take effect,” he said.
Obama blames Republicans for driving the economy into a “deep ditch” and for refusing to come up with solutions to turn things around. He lamented advances by other countries in infrastructure and education.
Although his speech hit such weary points, it did return to familiar themes that Obama established two years earlier: hope and change.
He rallied the crowd by defending his reform of health care and the credit card system and later connected that enthusiasm for getting voters to the polls for local Democrats.
About 35,000 people attended the rally, according to organizers. Cindy Hoover, a single mother who brought her three kids, said she hadn’t lost faith in Obama but was “scared” at the prospect of Tuesday’s election inflaming further partisanship.
“All that work to get [Obama] elected and good feelings it created … I’d hate to see the country get so divided even more,” she said.