- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2011

CHICAGO | President Barack Obama’s relationship with his hometown may be best described as a long-distance love affair. He lavishes attention on it from afar and proud Chicago pines for its hometown hero, though the two rarely see each other.

That looks like it’s about to change.

Mr. Obama is returning to his roots as he embarks on his re-election race for 2012. He’s setting up his campaign headquarters in a downtown high-rise near Grant Park, the site of his victory celebration on a frigid election night in November 2008.

He’s coming back Thursday to raise money, a week after launching his second White House bid with an understated email and online video.

The president is putting Chicago in the spotlight again as he tries to recreate the grass-roots, start-up flavor of his first campaign and do what no incumbent president has done in decades: try to win re-election from a location outside Washington.

“Nobody is more eager to be out and nobody is more eager to be here than him,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief political strategist who left the White House this year to return to Chicago to work on the re-election and be closer to his Chicago-based family. “The conversation in Washington is completely different than the conversation you hear out here.”

Mr. Obama’s advisers hope a Chicago location could insulate his campaign from some of the Washington chatter and news leaks that often plague campaigns. A beyond-the-Beltway headquarters could allow them to offset the notion that Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an outsider above the partisan fray and promised a new approach to politics, has become the ultimate political insider.

“Basing it in Chicago says, ‘I’m not of Washington,’ but if he doesn’t spend time in Chicago, he is of Washington,” said Paul Light, a public service professor at New York University.

As president, Mr. Obama has made only about a half a dozen visits to Chicago, often to raise money for candidates. He’s made only a few overnight trips to his South Side house.

His neighbors don’t seem to hold it against him.

“He’s got a whole world to deal with,” says Hosea McKay, a 73-year-old retired substance abuse counselor, who lives several blocks away. “Chicago, we can’t be so egotistical that we think he’s supposed to pop in every three or four months and hang out with us.”

Over the past two years, the Obamas have devised ways not to be homesick. They’ve brought Chicago to them in Washington.

They tapped into their network of hometown connections when they moved into the White House. Among those who relocated to Washington with the Obamas were friend Valerie Jarrett, now a White House adviser, and the family’s personal chef.

And the president swapped one chief of staff from Chicago for another. Rahm Emanuel is Chicago’s mayor-elect, while Bill Daley joined the White House as part of a staff reshuffling aimed at getting ready for the campaign.

While Mr. Axelrod said more presidential visits are likely, given that the campaign headquarters is in Chicago, just how much time Mr. Obama and his family will spend in Chicago this time is unclear. The duties of the presidency don’t lend themselves to much down time.

His team is setting up shop in a downtown high-rise not far from offices the Obama operation used in 2008. Campaign manager Jim Messina, a former White House deputy chief of staff, is directing the effort, and Mr. Axelrod is certain to be a constant presence.

“It’s nascent group and it’s going to grow,” said Mr. Axelrod, who stopped by the offices recently. “You could sense, you could feel some of that old excitement coming back and you know people are really eager to get going.”

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