President Obama jump started his 50th birthday celebration at a packed Democratic National Committee fundraiser in his hometown of Chicago tonight, where he used the milestone as an opportunity to raise campaign cash and remind voters, “We’ve got more work to do.”
“For all the frustrations and the challenges and resistance, we have to bringing about change. … When the American people join together, we cannot be stopped,” Obama said to full house at the historic Aragon Ballroom. “We say to ourselves, ‘Yes, we can.’ It doesn’t matter how tough a week I have in Washington, because I know you’ve got me — you’ve got my back. When I come to Chicago, when I travel across the country, I know we can’t be stopped. I know America is the greatest nation on Earth. And I know we will bring about the change that all of us believe in.”
The voter enthusiasm that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008 was on full display tonight as roughly 2,400 supporters braved the heat – the AC in the Aragon was on the fritz – to see the hometown president.
Attendees paid $50 each for a ticket to the birthday-themed event, where supporters donned 50th birthday hats and cooled themselves with “Obama 2012” paper fans. But the president wasn’t the only draw, guests were also entertained with performances by Chicago-native musicians Jennifer Hudson, Herbie Hancock and the rock group OK Go.
“I just want to, first of all, say I could not have a better early birthday present than spending the night with all of you,” Obama said after walking on stage as the crowd serenaded him with the “Happy Birthday” song.
The president also joked about hitting the half century mark.
“It’s true that I turn 50 tomorrow, 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,” he said.
Obama was introduced by his former chief of staff, the current Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel. The president later joked, “It looks to me like Rahm is doing a pretty good job. And as far as I can tell, he hasn’t cursed in public yet.”
While admitting “Chicago, we’ve got more work to do,” the president touted his accomplishments since taking office, including reviving the auto industry, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and investing in education.
“The thing that we all have to remember is that 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.
“When I said, ‘change we can believe in,’ I didn’t say, ‘change we can believe in tomorrow.’ 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,” he said. “And that’s the great thing about America is, is that there are all these contentious ideas that are out there and we’ve got to make our case.”
Looking ahead, the president made clear it’s all about jobs.
“We know we’ve still got a lot of work to do on the economy," he said. "Now, I hope we can avoid another self-inflicted wound like we just saw over the last couple of weeks because we don’t have time to play these partisan games. We’ve got too much work to do. Over the next several months, I hope Congress is focused on what the American people are focused on, making sure that the economy is growing.”
Following his speech at the Aragon, the president spoke at a smaller VIP affair with 100 donors who paid $35,800 to dine with the president. Neither the DNC nor the campaign would confirm the total amount raised at the fundraisers, the first the president has attended in more than a month.
Before taking the stage in Chicago, Obama held a live video conference with hundreds of supporters attending organizing meetings that doubled as birthday parties in his honor at 1,160 locations across the country.
"I am beaming in from Chicago," Obama said with a big smile when he came on the screen. "Having a little birthday celebration in my hometown and I just want to say thank you to all of you. I can't think of a better group of folks to spend my birthday with."
In Alexandria, Va., a diverse crowd of roughly 40 volunteers crowded around a neighbor's living room TV, captivated by the president speaking directly to them over Skype-like technology. Aides said Obama could in turn see a selection of participants faces on his screen from Chicago via a “Brady Bunch style” interface.
“As we gear back up to fight some tough battles — you saw this week how tough some of these battles are going to be — it is absolutely critical that all of you stay involved," Obama said. "We're in for a long battle. We got 16 months, and we're just going to have to be knocking on doors, making phone calls, turning out voters. It starts now, it builds now, and it starts with you."
Obama then took three questions from participants in three battleground states, North Carolina, Michigan and Ohio. He offered his wisdom as a former community organizer.
"I have difficulty answering some of the detailed questions on taxes and the wars," a woman from Greensboro, North Carolina, asked, appearing on-screen opposite Obama.
"First of all, you got to listen as much as you talk," Obama said. "The key is not getting too bogged down in detail."
He added later, "sometimes it's not so bad to say I don't know… but I can promise you I'll find out an answer and make sure to call you back."
In a lighter moment, participants at one house party broke into song, singing an impromptu Happy Birthday to the president over the internet. "Y'all have great voices," Obama said with a grin.
The house parties cap a month-long push by the Obama campaign to use the occasion of the president’s birthday to invigorate his base and expand a national network of volunteers and donors.
Aides had promoted a “50 for 50” sweepstakes that challenged supporters to sign up 50 new volunteers in exchange for a chance to attend the glitzy Chicago birthday bash. They also rolled out a website, step-by-step house party guide, and online marketplace with birthday-themed decorations and apparel, to help supporters plan and host recruitment meetings on their own.
“These events were aimed at energizing our volunteers, to get people together to talk about actions they want to take this fall to support the campaign,” said spokeswoman Katie Hogan.
During April, May and June, the Obama campaign reported engaging more than 550,000 contributors in the president’s 2012 re-election effort — a record participation rate for the second quarter, and more than all the supporters Obama had amassed in 2007.
- Mary Bruce, Devin Dwyer and Teresa Crawford