On Chicago Home Turf, Obama Still a Big Political Asset

President Obama speaks with Illinois Sen. Roland Burris following a fundraiser for Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias in Chicago. Susan Walsh / AP

While President Obama might get a cold shoulder from some Democratic candidates lately, he remains a powerful asset in his old stomping ground in Illinois.

Raising money and rallying troops in Chicago the other day in the contest for his former seat in the U.S. Senate, Obama was greeted with hugs and backslaps from Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, who’s locked in a virtual dead heat with Republican Mark Kirk. “There is a lot of pride in Illinois that Barack Obama is president,” said David Yepsen, who is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “The bashing-Obama thing isn’t going to work here.”

Even most Republican politicians in Illinois are careful to talk about Obama with a measure of respect. A survey released by the institute on Tuesday showed Obama has a higher favorable job-performance rating in Illinois, 50.3 percent of voters, than he does nationally. A recent Gallup poll showed his approval at 46 percent nationwide, and other surveys have shown lower numbers.

In what could be crucial in the Senate race in Illinois, Obama remains a virtual champion in Chicago, where the Democratic organization is famously adept at getting voters to the polls. Obama scores a job-approval rating of nearly 80 percent among voters in his old town, according to the survey. To be sure, there is not so much cheerleading for Obama in the cornfield country of Illinois, with the poll showing that 65 percent of downstate voters disapprove of the president’s job in office. But a majority of the people—and the votes—are in the Chicago metropolitan region. Certainly the Obama administration seems to believe the president’s comparative popularity in Illinois can translate to votes in the Senate race. “Alexi is my friend,” Obama told a crowd at the Drake Hotel. “I know his character.”

Character has played a big role in the Senate race, and neither Giannoulias nor Kirk has been winning any medals for virtue. Kirk has acknowledged falsifying his résumé and exaggerating his honors in the U.S. Navy. Giannoulias, meanwhile, who worked for his family’s now-defunct Chicago bank, has done more squirming than explaining when asked about his role in granting loans to organized-crime figures. This is a state that just sat through the corruption trial of former governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat (and awaits his retrial), and before that, watched the previous governor, George Ryan, a Republican, sent to the penitentiary for corruption.

Voters are less than enthusiastic about both Kirk and Giannoulias. In recent years Illinois has been a solidly blue state, with Democrats holding every statewide office. The state’s voters have a particular distaste for the Tea Party movement, according to the Southern Illinois University survey. But Kirk, 51, a congressman who represents an affluent suburban district north of Chicago along Lake Michigan, was regarded as the sort of socially moderate Republican who can be competitive in Illinois. He has been severely damaged by spinning the military-career falsehoods. He has also been criticized as a flip-flopper on issues. Obama, in an obvious jab at Kirk during his Chicago visit, praised Giannoulias as a politician who stands strong and “doesn’t shift in the wind.”

Meanwhile, critics of Giannoulias, who is 34, see him as inexperienced in government—he has served a single term as state treasurer—and lacking in private-sector accomplishment. His business career essentially amounted to working for the family bank that went broke. He has acknowledged that the bank did business with some shady types, including convicted felons who secured loans even as they were on their way to prison.

Before the Senate primary, it was no secret that Obama did not view Giannoulias—a Chicago basketball-playing pal—as the party’s strongest possible candidate. He tried to persuade Lisa Madigan, the popular state attorney general, to run for the job, but she declined.

Obama has been careful not to make much of the symbolism of keeping his seat out of Republican hands, and instead has focused on the importance of his party maintaining a working majority in Washington. But he’s been eager to lend support. Vice President Joe Biden also has traveled to Illinois to fire up Democrats. And this week Michelle Obama is scheduled to appear at fundraisers in the state. Patrick Brady, the state’s Republican Party leader, said the president’s homecoming so close to Election Day shows the Democrats fear a rout in November, even in Illinois. David Plouffe, a top aide to the president, has told reporters they should draw a different conclusion from the men’s appearances.

“I can assure you that if we didn’t think Alexi could get to 50 percent,” he said, “then the president and vice president wouldn’t be campaigning here.”