US mid-term elections: A campaign in the shadow of terror

Click to follow
The Independent US

It was a grand Tuesday in November. Delirious Democrats surged into Grant Park to hear the presidential victor address the nation. This weekend, two years later, he was back to be greeted again by an adoring, though smaller, crowd. But this Tuesday in November will be different.

Tomorrow, Chicago will awake to a political choreography thrown off and a city discombobulated. On the city's northern edges, members of the Jewish community will still be struggling to digest the news that an international terror plot originating in Yemen was aimed at them. Meanwhile, the loyal Democrats who attended Barack Obama's rally on the South Side on Saturday night will still feel some of the doubt that shaded their smiles as they chanted, yet again, "Yes we can".

This Tuesday, America elects a new Congress, and the country is in a different mood. Instead of worship, the embattled President faces repudiation. Chicago thus finds itself in an unfamiliar season of anxiety. For members of the gay and lesbian Congregation Or Chadash, which learnt on Saturday it was one of the targets of the Yemen print bombers, it is no wonder. "We are taking it very seriously," said Lilli Kornblum, vice-president of the Congregation. "But to be quite frank, for most of us it's not that different than a regular day in terms of going about our security, because we're always on a heightened sense of alert."

For Chicago's Democrats it is only political blood that is at stake, of course. But they are bracing anyway. A giant shift in the balance of power is coming, the polls say, that may not just stall the Obama agenda but perhaps threaten to reverse some of what he has been able to achieve. It's why all weekend Mr Obama barnstormed across the Northeast and here in the Midwest in a frantic bid to counter the Republican momentum, making stops also in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Ohio, pleading with Democrats to vote.

Nowhere is the predicament of his party more poignant than here in Illinois, however, where the biggest prize is the US Senate seat that Mr Obama held before becoming President. Alexi Giannoulias, the handsome state treasurer, might normally be a shoo-in for a state where Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans, but not this year. His contest with Republican Congressman Mark Kirk is rated a dead heat.

"The other side, their political strategy was that all of you would get amnesia," Mr Obama averred in his address to the Saturday rally in Medway Pleasance Park. (It is smaller than Grant Park, and chosen for exactly that reason.) He is referring to the start of the recession under George Bush that carried over into his term. "That was their strategy. They're betting that everybody around the country would forget who caused this mess in the first place. So Chicago, it's up to you to let them know that we have not forgotten. We don't have amnesia."

Near the front of the crowd is 70-year-old Alberta Johnson. She was in Grant Park in 2008 and drove with her husband, James, all the way to Washington for the Obama inauguration. On the subject of Republicans, Mrs Johnson needs no prompting. "It's like they're in a barroom," she complains. "It's the worst behaviour I have ever seen."

Standing on a bank on the park's edge just before the President helicopters in, Mayor Daley, who will retire early next year, shrugs extravagantly when asked what has gone wrong for Democrats that Mr Giannoulias faces possible defeat tomorrow. "I don't know, I've no idea," he says flatly, unwilling to state the obvious that Mr Obama and the Democrats are perceived by too many not to have delivered what they promised.

Mr Daley was in Grant Park two years ago as well of course. He tries to make out that nothing in the atmospherics has changed, that the euphoria, if not on the surface, is still there somewhere. "Look," he says, sweeping his arm over the sea of faces, "it's the same. They are very enthusiastic on behalf of President Obama. He is still popular in the country."

If you can't ask Mr Daley what has gone awry, you can ask people in this crowd, who, surely, are friends of Mr Obama like nobody else in the country. "I think it's been a lack of balls on the President's part," offers Kyle Jones, an 18-year-old political science student. "They tried too hard to accommodate the Republicans."

At the entirely inconspicuous brick synagogue in Chicago's North Side, meanwhile, which the gay and lesbian oriented Or Chadash congregation shares with the Emanuel Congregation, electoral politics are of little concern. A thousand questions gripped worshippers there on Saturday. Why us? Why would plotters thousands of miles away choose this Chicago block, the last leaves dropping from the trees, for their evil?

"It was just a surprise," Rabbi Larry Edwards of Or Chadash said. "When I was first hearing news, I assumed there were probably bigger targets. We're a small congregation. Either we were selected at random or it's because we're a mostly gay congregation."