President Obama kicked off his reelection fundraising drive here Thursday, returning to his home base and exhorting supporters to help him sell the idea of "a compassionate America, a caring America" instead of the alternative he says Republicans are offering.
Before more than 2,000 supporters at an evening rally, Obama raised a basic message from his first presidential campaign — "I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper" — and added an allusion to the contemporary budget struggles consuming Washington. Prosperous Americans should be willing to pay a little more in taxes, he said, to help those who are struggling.
"We're individuals," said Obama, who is pressing for an increase in taxes for wealthy Americans. "But we also have this idea that we're all in this together … and that I'm looking after them, not out of charity, but because my life is richer, my life is better when the people around me are happy and the people around me have a shot at the American dream."
The new message evolved as Obama made his way from one high-dollar fundraiser to another, and then to a cavernous hall at the Navy Pier. Though he never specifically announced he was running for reelection, the fact was evident from the many appeals to help him repeat the victory his Chicago-based campaign achieved in 2008.
By night's end, Obama had collected more than $2 million, on the way to a fundraising haul that some advisors say could eventually hit a record-setting $1 billion. The next few weeks will take him to Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Miami on a tour the president's team hopes will establish a clear challenge to Republicans who would take him on.
But the numbers Obama was focused on publicly Thursday were the dollar figures being bandied about in Washington, as he, fellow Democrats and Republicans begin to wrestle with the budget issues that will occupy them for months to come.
Obama critiqued the budget plan of Republican Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who wants to cut taxes and privatize Medicare, a combination that put the president in a scolding mood.
"And you've got right now one side that I believe is entirely sincere that says we no longer can afford to do big things in this country," Obama told supporters at a restaurant fundraiser. "We can't afford to be compassionate. … We can't afford Medicare, so let's make sure that seniors get a voucher, and if the health insurance companies aren't giving them full coverage or they can't afford coverage with the voucher they get, tough luck, they're on their own."
At the next stop, Obama said that wasn't a "critique" but rather a "description."
Obama noted that he was the first president in modern history to move his reelection campaign headquarters out of Washington, basing it in Chicago.
"I decided I don't want our campaign to be just hearing all the pundits and powerbrokers. I want our campaign to be here because you guys are the ones who got me started," Obama said.
"One of the things that I've seen again and again over the last couple of years is the conversation in Washington is very different from the conversation around kitchen tables and office coolers. And I wanted to make sure our campaign was rooted in your hopes and rooted in your dreams. I wanted to make sure we're putting the campaign in your hands," he said.
Obama acknowledged at one of the stops that in a reelection campaign, "some of the excitement of something new is not going to be there." But, he added, "the question is, do we finish the job?"
With a reelection fundraising goal exceeding the more than $750 million raised in 2008, the Obama camp has asked its top fundraising bundlers to come up with $350,000 apiece, $100,000 more than his first White House bid.
Individual donations to Obama are restricted by federal campaign finance law to $2,500 each for the nominating season and the general election, and donations to the Democratic National Committee are capped at $30,800 a year.
The increased emphasis on high-dollar fundraising is a reflection of a changed campaign landscape.
Though he does not face a primary challenge, Obama is expected to be the subject of blistering general election attacks from several Republican-oriented groups such as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, backed by former George W. Bush White House political strategist Karl Rove. Since a Supreme Court decision last year, groups like it are not bound by federal donation limits or disclosure rules.