CHICAGO — Marching onto the campaign trail for the first time this year, President Barack Obama cast Democrats' success in this year's midterm elections as a chance to further the policies he's fought for in the White House. "Don't give up now," he said. "Not after we've made this much progress."
Returning to the accepting embrace of his home state of Illinois, Obama told voters that Republicans mean well, but "just have bad ideas." He accused the GOP of recycling those ideas over and over, urging voters to take their future into their own hands by showing up Nov. 4 — and electing Democrats.
"The power to move our society, our government, it really is in your hands," Obama said during a rally for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn that doubled as a homecoming for the president. "You're the reason that I had the audacity to actually run for president of the United States."
Echoing many of the same themes as his own 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Obama said Democrats were fighting to give women equal pay, give children a good education and give all Americans access to decent health care. He contrasted that with the policies of Republicans, whom he claimed were living in the 1950s and belong "in a 'Mad Men' episode."
Obama's rallies Sunday in Chicago and Maryland marked his first major foray into the 2014 midterm elections. Obama was supposed to rally last week in Connecticut for Gov. Dannel Malloy, but postponed that visit to focus on Ebola.
Though limited in his ability to help his party this year, Obama has sought to use his own policies, like a minimum wage hike, to frame an economic message that can lift up Democratic candidates across the country. In radio ads and other appearances, Obama has also sought to rev up the same voting blocs that helped elect him twice — including minorities, women and young people — in hopes they'll show up this year even without Obama on the ballot.
Although Obama has raised money for Democrats this year at a feverish pace, he's stayed away from appearing in public with candidates — due in large part to his sagging approval ratings in key states. Obama will rally in the coming weeks for another half-dozen Democratic candidates for governor, but is not venturing into the conservative-leaning states where Democrats are fighting their toughest Senate races.
"We're in the fight of our lives for the soul of Illinois' democracy. They may have more money," Quinn said of his opponent, Republican Bruce Rauner. "But we've got President Barack Obama."
Hours earlier, a much more muted Obama was at another rally — this one at a high school just east of Washington — seeking votes for Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in his bid for the state's top job.
Roughly 8,000 people packed a high school gymnasium — with more in an overflow crowd next-door — where Obama adopted his party's mantra for this election season by claiming the midterms would come down to one thing: "Who is going to fight for you?"
"The Republican Party can keep telling you what they're against," Obama said, riffing off a long list: affordable health care, immigration reform, action on climate change, to name a few. "But the good news is Democrats keep telling you what things we're for."
Obama's rally for Brown had the feeling of a gospel service, and a local pastor opened by noting that the slaves who helped build the White House could have never anticipated that one of their own would one day occupy the home, evoking chants of "amen" from the audience. One speaker suggested that Brown, if elected, would be a leader in the model of Obama himself, while others denounced Republican moves to tighten voting restrictions as an attempt to stifle the black vote.
Support for Obama still runs high in Democratic-leaning Maryland — and especially in Prince George's County, a heavily African-American corner of the state and Brown's home base. Roughly 9 in 10 voters in the county backed Obama in 2008. Just next to the high school where Obama held his rally sits Barack Obama Elementary School.
Illinois, too, is about as safe as territory gets for Obama these days. The president remains popular here, and Quinn has also gotten a boost from Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama.
But unlike in Maryland, where Brown has held a healthy lead over his opponent, the race in Illinois is tighter, in large part due to Quinn's low popularity. Like Brown, Quinn is counting on black voters who still support Obama to turn out Nov. 4 to secure his re-election.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP