Des Moines, IA -- With the state having been occupied by Republican presidential candidates for most of the year, and perhaps sensing the urgency to recapture the spirit of 2008, Iowa Democrats tapped one of their party's most renowned heavyweights to rally the base at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday night.
During what many on hand referred to as a quasi "kick off" for the president's reelection in Iowa, Rahm Emanuel, the Former Chief of Staff to President Obama and current mayor of Chicago, urged Iowans in attendance to recall the pledges of Senator Obama from four years ago and insisted they reelect President Obama based on the results.
"Mayor Emanuel has proven to be one of the great advocates for Democratic values and middle class opportunity throughout his service in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, as a leader in Congress, and now at the helm of the great city of Chicago," said Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky, in September, upon announcing that Emanuel would give the evening's keynote address.
Having gained a reputation as one of the party's most aggressive operatives over the course of his time in Washington, and while working on numerous Democratic campaigns including his own, Emanuel earned the nickname "Rahmbo," among insiders, for both his demeanor and what some regard as tactical brilliance.
Before the event began, several in attendance expressed their enthusiasm about Emanuel's decision to stump for the president in Iowa at this stage of the process.
"We couldn't have a better leader here tonight than Rahm Emanuel," said former Iowa Governor Chet Culver, as he made his way into the main hall. "He will help us kick this off for 2012, giving us a great message to take back to Iowa voters."
Hal and Avril Chase, of Des Moines, heard Emanuel give a condensed version of his speech earlier in the day at the Obama for America (OFA) Campaign Headquarters, and agree that he (Emanuel) was the right pick for this year's event.
"His role is to come in here and fire up the crowd, like he did this afternoon," said Hal Chase, who also acknowledged that Iowa, for the time being, remains "up for grabs, even though there is not a strong alternative among the Republicans."
Moments before the first speakers took the stage, Karen Pattle, who serves at the Chair of the Democratic Party in Allamekee County, described Emanuel as "very assertive, hard nose, the tell it like it is type." Pattle said she came to hear an inspiring message, but hoped Emanuel would clearly "lay out the distinct differences between Republican and Democrats."
With Dvorsky as the Master of Ceremonies, the event -- which drew over a thousand people -- raced through the first portion of its schedule, as several elected officials from Iowa were given a few moments to speak.
In rather uncoordinated fashion, none of the preliminary speakers -- which included congressional candidate Christie Vilsack, Senator Tom Harkin (whose recorded remarks were played on video screens), and longtime Congressman Leonard Boswell -- played the surrogate role particularly well.
After referring to Rahm Emanuel as his "former drill sergeant," Rep. Bruce Braley, of Iowa's 1st District, somewhat awkwardly asked members of the audience to close their eyes and think back to what he called, "that magical night in Denver," referring to the night when President Obama accepted his party's nomination for president.
"Imagine what we could do together if we still believed in hope and change," he said. "I want you to think about what you will do to bring that magic back to Iowa."
Shortly after taking the stage, Emanuel quickly reminded the audience that, much like in 2008, it will require hard work, not magic, to reelect the president.
"Four years ago, at this very dinner -- and many of you were in attendance -- a young senator from Illinois, who was 23 points down in the polls, spoke to you in words you will never forget," he said. "With the promises he made in that speech, he began a journey that would change history -- and he did it with your help."
Emanuel described President Obama as the "catalyst to the most productive first 100 days of any president in history," before running down a litany of the president's accomplishments.
The list, which ranged from health care and education to foreign policy, made reference to "a war that never should have been authorized and should never have been waged," and the president's desire to "stop talking about the outrage of 47 million of Americans who don't have healthcare and start actually doing something about it."
On healthcare, he noted, "Politicians have been making that promise for over 60 years. President Obama delivered.
Regarding the economic crisis, Emanuel explained, "The President inherited an economy that was spiraling towards depression. He inherited a financial system that had frozen up and an auto industry that was near collapse."
And never one to pull a punch, he added, "The problems President Obama faced were not caused by accident. They were caused by policies - Republican policies."
Emanuel credits President Obama for seeing the nation through what he called "our greatest economic crises in decades," and said "the strength of our President's character was on display every day."
Bridging the gap between his prior years in the Clinton White House and the first two years in the Obama administration, Emanuel said, "We left President Bush a record surplus and he left President Obama a record national debt."
Making note of the shift in economic and national defence policies, Emanuel segued into another jab at the Republican opposition.
"They took everything they inherited: the jobs, the surplus, the stature of our country around the world -- and they squandered it," he said.
"It's ironic. I figured the one thing Republicans were really good at, was inheriting things."
On foreign policy, Emanuel reminded the audience of candidate Obama's pledge from 2007 and the results President Obama has to show for it today.
"The war is over," Emanuel declared. "That is the change we believed in. That is the change we worked for. That is the change our president delivered."
Hitting his rhetorical stride, Emanuel highlighted what many consider one of Obama's greatest accomplishments.
"Four years ago, at this very dinner, President Obama promised he would take the fight to Al Qa'eda, he said he would bring justice to Al Qa'eda's leaders. Tonight, Osama bin Laden is history, justice has been done. And America is better for it."
Shedding light on life inside the Obama White House for a voter base who may feel disconnected from the president they strongly supported in 2008, Emanuel again described his experience working closely with the president.
"Every day I worked by his side, I saw a leader who didn't ask what was the easy thing to do, what was the politically convenient thing to do, but what was the right thing to do," he said. "The President did not make choices based on politics. He made them because of his principles. He did not make choices for the next election; he made them for the next generation."
Emanuel meanwhile also confessed that occasionally the president's principles and pragmatic style bothered him and went against Emanuel's more sharp elbowed approach.
"Trust me, I know this first hand, he didn't make decisions based on whether they were quick, or politically convenient, because I was often recommending the quick or politically convenient thing to do," he said. "And I didn't win any of those fights."
For the next several minutes, Emanuel targeted his remarks squarely toward Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Emanuel utilized the difference between Romney and the president's position on the crisis within the financial system and auto-industry to articulate his point.
"President Obama did not think either one should be abandoned, the financial system or the auto industry," he said. "Both were essential to the economic future and leadership of this country."
Emanuel then reminded the audience that during the auto industry crisis of 2008, Romney penned a New York Times Op-ed, titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
Emanuel claimed that since he became mayor of Chicago, Ford has added a third shift at their plant on the South Side of Chicago and Chrysler just added another 1,100 jobs in Ohio.
According to statements from Ford's CEO Alan Mulally, in September, the second-largest U.S. automaker is sticking to its target of adding 7,000 jobs in the United States over the next two years.
"If we followed Mitt Romney's course, those jobs wouldn't be there and those communities wouldn't be thriving."
And as if already in general election mode, Emanuel continued to draw contrast between the candidate and the incumbent.
"Nothing reveals more about the character and values of these two individuals than how they dealt with these two crises."
Maintaining that Romney also has a record of regularly shifting his stance on issues such as abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage, immigration, climate change and healthcare, Emanuel joked that if the former Massachusetts governor considers himself a "man of steady leadership and consistency, then I play linebacker for the Chicago Bears."
In closing, Emanuel told the audience that there is no question about whether President Obama will continue to fight for the middle class and the values Democrats hold dear.
"The question is: will we fight for him and for his belief in America?," he yelled.
The crowd responded emphatically with calls of "yes!" following each of Emanuel's requests for support.
Following the event, Chairwoman Dvorsky spoke enthusiastically about the turnout and mood of the event.
"I'm thrilled," she said. "Iowa voters are fired up."
Regarding the keynote speech, Dvorsky said "He (Rahm Emanuel) was terrific tonight. And he wasn't just talking to Iowa tonight. He was talking to the country."
And about the amount of time Emanuel dedicated to Republican contender Mitt Romney?
"Romney represents the perfect storm," she said. "He has an inconsistent message, and every time he talks he has a new plan to drag the country backwards with his policies."
Solomon Miller, 20, of Grinnell College, attended the event with a four other College Democrats and left feeling confident the president will win reelection in 2012.
Originally from Evanston, Illinois and a Rahm Emanuel devotee, Miller said a successful campaign will require the president to transition from his "wonkier side" back to his more "public side," if he hopes to re-engage younger voters as he did so well in 2008.
According to Miller, the lack of clarity in the Republican field is the reason more Democratic Party leaders are not playing a larger role in the president's reelection effort so far.
"Once the Republicans settle on a candidate, it will be hard for Democrats to not come out more publicly to support Obama," he said.
Rahm Emanuel showed up to HyVee Hall in Des Moines on Saturday, weighed in, and proved he's in fighting shape for 2012. But, until the Republicans make their choice for the general election, it wouldn't hurt the president to recruit a few more sparring partners to mix into the rotation.