Obama's Awkward Homecoming

The president heads for Illinois today, but won't stump for a friend struggling to win his old Senate seat. Richard Wolffe and Samuel P. Jacobs on the White House home-state election curse.

The president headed for Illinois Wednesday, but didn't stump for a friend struggling to win his old Senate seat. Richard Wolffe and Samuel P. Jacobs on the White House home-state election curse.

President Obama went home Wednesday, returning to the state of Illinois that launched his political career. He arrived in the midst of a closely contested battle for the Senate seat he exited for the White House—a race in which the Democratic contender is a trusted friend and rising star Obama once called “one of the most outstanding young men that I could ever hope to meet.” But as he touched down on his home turf, it wasn't at all clear Obama would even bother giving a shout-out to his old pal and potential successor, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Indeed, the White House political crew reportedly sought to encourage other candidates in the race—notably state attorney general Lisa Madigan—in a sure reflection of their doubts about Giannoulias’ prospects for winning Obama’s old Senate seat. The Illinois situation is reminiscent of another White House foray into Democratic primary politics, when Obama and his team drew fire for trying to persuade New York Governor David Paterson not to seek re-election.

Giannoulias “is getting clobbered. People understand this. They will need Obama to come here, probably in October to spend a day back in his home area,” says Paul Green.

On Tuesday reporters asked deputy press secretary Bill Burton if the president would give a shout-out to his friend Giannoulias, who was a close basketball buddy and worked on Obama’s 2004 campaign. Burton first said he didn’t know who was going to be on hand at Obama’s appearance. But when reporters pointed out that Giannoulias would indeed attend, Burton said the event was not a place for campaigning. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for the president to talk about anybody’s campaign at what are all official events,” he said.

At the last minute, Obama decided to go ahead and give his old pal a nod. Obama hugged Giannoulias at the president's stopover in Quincy, Illinois Wednesday. In his introductions, president called the state treasurer, "soon-to-be senator" at the appearance. To some, that might have seemed like a tepid embrace. But the fact that the President over-ruled his staff's promise to say nothing points to another dynamic. Giannoulias is far less popular with Obama's political aides than he is with his old friend, the commander-in-chief. And when push comes to shove, it is Obama who decides which races and candidates he really invests in.

What gives? Well, Giannoulias has had some trouble on the campaign trail of late. His family’s bank failed at the end of last week, shuttered by regulators under the weight of some bad real estate loans. Along the way, Broadway Bank made loans to two Chicago crime figures, as well as developer Tony Rezko, who was convicted in 2008 on fraud and bribery charges.

The president’s political aides can’t be thrilled at the renewed attention on Rezko, an Obama fundraiser in years past whose sale of a parcel of land to the Obamas became a nagging headache during the 2008 presidential campaign (even though there was no evidence that Obama did anything improper). And Obama's name has surfaced anew in the ongoing corruption case against former Governor Rod Blagojevich, after Blago asked a judge to subpoena the president (Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to charges that he sought to auction off an appointment to fill Obama's Senate seat). Further, Giannoulias’ woes offer the GOP a chance to remind voters of Obama’s strong endorsement of his friend during Giannoulias’ 2006 campaign for Illinois treasurer. “What we want in the job of treasurer is somebody who knows how money works and knows how to manage it and make sound investments that protect people’s pensions.”

In Washington, Politico declared it was hard to remember a worse thing happening to a Senate candidate. In Chicago, the Tribune’s columnist Eric Zorn suggested Obama would be “thrilled” if Giannoulias withdrew from the race.

Home-state politics have often been tricky for sitting presidents in an election year. The opposition relishes the chance to embarrass the president in his back yard, pulling a Senate seat or governorship away from the party in power. For the occupant of the White House, there’s added pressure to show he hasn’t lost his connection to the folks back home, and that he can still take care of business where it matters most. And those old scandals do have a way of resurfacing. Just ask Bill Clinton, whose successor in the Arkansas statehouse, Jim Guy Tucker—who, enmeshed in Whitewater and other scandals, was forced to resign, paving the path to power for Republican Mike Huckabee. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, recalls that President George H.W. Bush was none too pleased when Democrat Ann Richards grabbed the Texas governorship on his watch—campaigning vigorously for Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and helping make Bush’s home state more competitive for Democrats overall. Vice presidents, too, have been hit with the home-state curse; no sooner had Al Gore been tapped as Clinton’s veep than he looked on in embarrassment “when the GOP swept his former Senate seat—and everything else in Tennessee—in the Republican landslide of 1994,” Sabato recalls.

Back in Illinois, Giannoulias’ aides brush aside suggestions that Obama is no longer in his corner. “All the public comments have been clear—the White House supports him and this ticket,” says Eric Adelstein, media consultant to Giannoulias. “A lot of tea-leaf reading is overblown. They said they will campaign here for the ticket.”

Adelstein went so far as to spin the collapse of the Giannoulias family bank as a positive—signaling he understands first-hand the economic hardships so many Americans are suffering this election year. “Voters understand that lots of businesses are struggling and particularly small banks that didn’t get federal bailouts,” he said. “The response is people saying we want a senator who understands firsthand the impact that the economy has had on families.”

The Quincy, Illinois call-out was Obama’s second recent name-check of Giannoulias during this hairy campaign season. At last month’s Greek Independence Day in the East Room of the White, the president asked Giannoulias to stand up for recognition and cited him as one of his “great friends and supporters” from the Greek community in Chicago.

According to James Houlihan, the popular Cook County assessor who wants to run for Chicago mayor, Giannoulias maintains the respect of the president. Houlihan recently visited his old Chicago friends Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod in the White House, and recounted his conversations with Chicago magazine columnist Carol Felsenthal.

When asked if Obama had hoped that Madigan would be the senate candidate, Houlihan said: “I think that was more the operatives, Rahm and David. I don’t think that was Obama.” As for the White House position now, he added: “I don’t think they’re looking for a new candidate…I think Alexi will win…I think Alexi brings an energy and a freshness to the office, a real charismatic presence.”

So far, anyway, Giannoulias seems to be surviving the storms. Despite the hail of bad publicity, he trails GOP candidate Mark Kirk by just four points in the latest surveys. And while he trails in fundraising, the Democrat still turned in his best quarter, raising $1.2 million in the first three months of the year.

Still, Giannoulias may well need Obama’s help to make it across the finish line. “The brightest guns in Illinois politics are right now next to Obama,” says Paul Green, director of the school of policy studies at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. “[Giannoulias] is getting clobbered. People understand this. They will need Obama to come here, probably in October to spend a day back in his home area—and not just Chicago—because he is still very popular.”

And however he handles this trip to Illinois, the president can’t really afford to take a hands-off approach to the Illinois Senate race, at a time when historical currents suggest a strong GOP showing this fall and the Democrats need every seat they can muster. Besides, as Obama’s aides readily concede, they will be blamed for defeat—or credited with victory—regardless of whether they show up in support of any particular candidate. Whether Obama’s aides like their candidate or not, the Illinois race will be seen as a test of not just friendship, but also the political moxie of a president at the midterm of his power.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to reflect Obama's visit.

Richard Wolffe is a Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.