Obama returns home to defend himself and support Democratic candidates

By Eric Cortellessa President Barack Obama returned to the state where he began his political career Thursday to defend where he has taken the U.S. economy during the past six years.

In a 54-minute speech at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium, Obama highlighted the steady growth the economy has experienced since the official end of the Great Recession in 2009. The move was a pivot from international crises in Ukraine and Iraq that have dominated his agenda in recent months.

“What supports our leadership role in the world is the strength of our economy at home,” Obama told a crowd of more than 1,000, many of them Northwestern students. With mid-term elections approaching, Obama insisted that Americans “should be proud of the progress our country has made these past six years,” while also recognizing that economic gains have not been broadly shared.

He emphasized a nearly 4 percent drop in national unemployment since he took office and the creation of more than 10 million jobs in the last four and a half years, the longest uninterrupted period of private sector job creation in the nation’s history.

Layci Calloway, a second-year MBA candidate at Kellogg who was in the audience, said she appreciated the way Obama supported his message with data. “Obviously, we’re not there yet,” she said. “But we’ve come a long way.”

The president also blamed Congressional Republicans for blocking his efforts to improve the economy at a faster pace and reiterated his call for Congress to raise the minimum wage.

While Evanston is a prosperous, heavily Democratic suburb likely to be receptive to Obama’s message, it is situated in a state that is behind the national curve in numerous respects. Illinois currently has the second highest unemployment in the Midwest at 6.7 percent. The national rate is 6.1 percent.

In attendance at the address hosted by the Kellogg School of Management was Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who is facing a tough reelection race-that has closely focused on the state’s economy. “I think the president’s message of economic optimism does resonate here in Illinois,” Quinn said in an interview after the president’s remarks. “I had lunch with President Obama just before this and we talked about Chrysler creating thousands of jobs here over the last four years and how our embracing the health care law’s Medicaid expansion has covered over 450,000 Illinois residents.”

Peter Giangreco, partner at The Strategy Group, a consulting firm for the Democratic Party, said the president has an impressive record but has always struggled to sell his accomplishments.

“I think his decision to give this speech at this time, as we are coming closer to the midterms, is aimed to do just that,” he said. “The key question for his presidency is how fast is the economy recovering and is it recovering for enough people? The people at the top are always doing fine, so the task is to create opportunities for people in the middle. And right now incomes aren’t rising fast enough for the middle class.”

Before delivering his address Thursday afternoon, the president headlined a fundraiser for Quinn. The two then joined U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for lunch before sharing a helicopter ride to Evanston. Obama returned to Washington Thursday night where he was scheduled to appear at a gala thrown by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Photo caption: Northwestern students line up Thursday to hear President Obama’s remarks.