COLUMBUS, Ohio--President Obama officially kicked off his reelection campaign Saturday afternoon by blasting the economic policies of Republican Mitt Romney and pronouncing the prospect of his election a threat to the middle class.
Speaking before a crowd of about 14,000 at Ohio State University, Obama said the former Massachusetts governor stands for trickle-down economics and would “rubber-stamp” the economic proposals of the Republicans in Congress.
A successful investor and business executive, Romney has drawn “the wrong lesson from those experiences,” Obama said.
“Gov. Romney doesn’t get that maximizing profit through whatever means necessary,” Obama said, “might not always be good for the average American.”
Obama admitted to "setbacks" for the country as it emerged from a major recession, and said the economy still faces "headwinds" that will require a "sustained, persistent effort" to fully recover.
But he cast Romney as a tool of an unpopular Republican Congress that he said would restore the very policies that led the nation into financial crisis, contrasting that with his vision of moving the nation "forward," the new slogan for his campaign. His two events Saturday are in the home states of the leading House Republicans.
"We have come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years. We have to move forward to the future we imagined in 2008, where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone gets their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules," Obama said.
Obama has been openly making the case for his reelection for more than a year now, in official trips and public events focused on his agenda before Congress and efforts to revitalize the economy.
But Saturday’s first rally had an all-new, unabashed campaign feel to it, complete with the introduction of a new banner theme, the use of jumbo screens to debut campaign videos and unveiling of a new stump speech.
And it was the first time Obama has spoken Romney’s name several times in one address, calling him out directly on a range of issues from ending the war in Iraq to cutting taxes on the wealthy.
Befitting the new stage of the campaign, Republican spokespeople offered a counter-narrative to Obama’s story.
"Now the president has to run on his record,” said Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. “And he will have to explain to the American people why his vision for bigger government, more spending and higher taxes will work over the next four years when it hasn’t worked in the past 3-1/2 years."
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said Obama’s economic policies have “failed Ohio families and demonstrated that this president does not have what it takes to get our economy moving again.”
Before Obama arrived, Ohio campaign directors taught the crowd how to call friends and promote the president, which many of them did on the spot, via cellphone. Marching band members played Lady Gaga. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland loudly declared Ohio “Obama territory” during one of the warmup speeches.
First Lady Michelle Obama said that her husband is “awesome.”
Appearing in a sleeveless dress of the exact sky-blue hue as the new “Forward” campaign signs, the first lady urged supporters to give a little of their time to the campaign each week to spread the message.
“Barack knows what it means when a family struggles,” she said. “What you need to know, America – those are the experiences that have made him the man, and the president, he is today.”
The president’s new stump speech focused heavily on that difference in his personal story and that of Romney, son of a governor who has earned millions.
Obama took credit for progress on goals outlined in 2007, of drawing down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, tackling the healthcare crisis and tracking down terrorists.
He homed in on the challenges still facing the country, while sounding a refrain that the country has come too far under his leadership to “turn back now.” And he echoed themes of the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched his national career.
If people ask what the campaign is about in 2012, Obama said, "You tell them it's still about hope."
"I still believe we have more in common than the pundits tell us," he said. "We're not Democrats or Republicans, but Americans first and foremost."
The Columbus crowd of 14,000 was modest compared to some of Obama’s 2008 audiences, and his rally later in the day at the Virginia Commonwealth University was expected to be somewhat smaller.
Campaign strategists say that isn’t the point this time around, as a sitting president’s ability to draw a crowd is no big deal.
The point now is to persuade voters, especially those in crucial swing states like Ohio and Virginia, that he deserves more time.
One of the new videos featured the South Carolina supporter who started the chant, “Fired up, Ready to go!” during the 2008 campaign.
Obama promised the same kind of grass-roots effort as four years ago, one that will be crucial when Republicans will have an advantage in spending from outside groups.
"They will be spending more money than we've ever seen before," he said. "Ads that exploit people's frustrations for my opponent's political gain."
The key question, Obama suggested, was not whether Americans were better off than they were four years ago.
"Won't we be better off if we had the courage to keep moving forward. That's the question in this election," he said.
As he left, the crowd picked up a vintage chant from the 2008 campaign.
"Fired up, ready to go!" they shouted, as campaign strategists looked on, smiling.
Parsons reported from Columbus and Memoli from Washington.