A banner outside the Aragon Ballroom welcomes President Obama to his hometown… (Larry Downing / Reuters )
Reporting from Chicago — One day after wrapping up a tense budget deal that will impose severe spending cuts, President Obama returned home to Chicago on Wednesday night to pick up campaign cash and tell voters he is refocusing on the ailing economy.
Obama appeared at a pair of fundraisers tied to a milestone: He turns 50 on Thursday. A hometown crowd sang "Happy Birthday" with entertainers Jennifer Hudson and Herbie Hancock in a sweltering Aragon Ballroom.
"And it's true that I turn 50 tomorrow," the president said, "which means that by the time I wake up I'll have an email from AARP asking me to call President Obama and tell him to protect Medicare."
Obama seemed delighted to be out of Washington, where he was hunkered down for the last few weeks haggling with Republican leaders over an agreement to raise the nation's debt ceiling to ensure that the Treasury has enough money to pay the bills.
Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff and now Chicago's mayor, met him at the airport.
Emanuel seems to be doing "a pretty good job," Obama told the crowd. Even better, he said of the tempestuous mayor, "as far as I can tell, he hasn't cursed in public yet."
Obama didn't dwell on the debt ceiling agreement but made plain his displeasure over the long stalemate.
"I hope we can avoid another self-inflicted wound like we just saw over the last couple of weeks," Obama said, "because we don't have time to play these partisan games. … I hope Congress is focused on what the American people are focused on: making sure the economy is growing."
The campaign stop presented an early test of how Obama will treat a budget deal that stands as a defining act of his term. Much of his political coalition is unhappy that the deficit reduction package relies on spending cuts and carries no guarantee of tax revenue increases. But Obama insisted he could still find money for renewable energy, education and scientific research.
"And we're going to invest in clean energy, because we're tired of being dependent on foreign oil," he told the crowd. "… And we're going to increase our investment in basic research to find cures for cancer and Alzheimer's."
Republicans sought to capitalize on the trip, which comes amid a new round of troubling economic reports. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, mocked the president as the "fundraiser in chief." Obama, he said, was back in Chicago "doing the one thing that he's really good at, and that's raising money to save his job."
Recognizing voters' impatience, Obama asked for more time to let his policies take hold.
"When I said, 'Change we can believe in,' I didn't say, 'Change we can believe in tomorrow,' " he said, as the crowd laughed. "Not, 'Change we can believe in next week.' We knew this was going to take time, because we've got this big, messy, tough democracy."
Afterward, Obama went to a private dinner with about 100 people who made the maximum donation of $35,800.
Obama didn't stay long. He left for Washington right after the events, choosing not to spend the night in the house he still owns.