CHICAGO — President Barack Obama restarted his formidable fundraising operation Thursday with a challenge to supporters that the 2012 presidential campaign will be about how to fix the country's money problems without doing harm to "the America we believe in."
"We are going to be able to present a very clear option to the American people," the president told Chicago hometown supporters in his first fundraisers since formally announcing his re-election last week. "We can get our fiscal house in order, but we can do it in a way that is consistent with our values and who we are as a people. Or we can decide to shrink our vision of what America is. And I don't believe in shrinking America."
Bracing for a fight against re-energized Republicans determined to deny him a second term, the president sought Thursday to reanimate supporters who swept him into the White House in 2008 on promises of change — including liberals disappointed at his compromises with the GOP.
He did so by offering a stinging critique of GOP budget proposals that would cut deeply into social programs, education and elsewhere, accusing Republicans of a slash-and-burn approach that says "we can't afford to be compassionate."
"Under their vision we can't invest in roads and bridges ... we would be a nation of potholes," the president told a high-dollar group at MT restaurant, the second of three fundraisers he held Thursday night in the city that launched his political career and where he's headquartering his re-election.
The president made his remarks a day after delivering a speech on deficit reduction in Washington in which he made similar charges about Republicans as the author of the GOP budget plan, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, watched from the front row.
Ryan and other Republicans later accused Obama of lobbing overly partisan political broadsides without delivering many specifics about his own plans. The president's attacks marked a change in tone from the more subdued approach he'd taken since Democrats were routed in the November midterm elections.
Obama defended himself Thursday.
"The speech I gave yesterday was not a partisan shot at the other side. It was an attempt to clarify the choice that we have as a country right now," he told donors at Nine restaurant.
Obama said he agreed with the need to rein in spending and trim crushing deficits, but argued that Republicans would do so while slashing areas like education, energy and transportation that he said must be preserved to ensure American competitiveness.
Republicans pounced on Obama for pivoting from deficit reduction to raising money even as a critical spending debates loom. "Campaigner-in-chief kicks of fundraising circuit," read a release from the Republican National Committee.
The president indicated he was well aware of the big fights yet to come. He described the budget negotiations that nearly resulted in a government shutdown last week as "the appetizer that was just the trial run." In coming months the parties will square off over the budget for the 2012 fiscal year, competing plans for bringing down deficits, raising the debt limit to avoid an unprecedented default on U.S. debt obligations, and other issues.
Among numerous other disagreements, Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich while Republicans oppose that vehemently, and the Republican plan would completely remake Medicare for future beneficiaries, offering them a set sum of money to buy their own care from private insurers. Obama says that would end Medicare as we know it and leave seniors on their own.
The president seemed likely to sustain his argument of Democratic investment versus ruinous Republican cuts as he participated in a series fundraisers that will take him to San Francisco and Los Angeles next week, New York the week after, and elsewhere.
Obama raised $750 million in 2008 and could top $1 billion this time around, though he himself acknowledges a need to re-energize the grass-roots supporters and small donors who helped sweep him into the White House.
"This campaign is not my campaign, this is your campaign. And the question is do we finish the job. I'm prepared to finish the job. I hope you are too," he said at MK restaurant.
The last event of the night Thursday, at Chicago's Navy Pier, priced tickets starting at $100 and was aimed at younger supporters. It drew a loud and enthusiastic crowd of 2,300 that was warmed up by Chicago sports stars, including Bulls point guard Derrick Rose. Obama's former chief of staff and Chicago's mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel, accompanied the president throughout the evening.
Earlier Obama spoke to about 225 people in all at events at the restaurants Nine and MK, with tickets as high as $35,800. All told the events should raise $2 million or more for Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Obama's fundraising push comes as the Republican field begins to take shape, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum announcing exploratory committees this week.