RICHMOND, Va. – President Obama’s rally here Saturday had the look and feel of his groundbreaking 2008 campaign: the unusually young and diverse audience, the sign-up sheets to enlist new volunteers, the JumboTron video of the candidate’s greatest hits, and the chants of “Fired up? Ready to go!’’
On stage, Obama wasn’t dressed like a president – no jacket, no tie, sleeves rolled up. Sometimes, he didn’t even sound like one. “That’s why I’m running for president,’’ the man on stage said over and over again, casting a sweeping vision of a healthier, safer, better educated and more prosperous nation. He even had the moxie to put a twist on the age-old, election-year question – are you better off than you were four years ago? – by promising voters they will be better off four years from now.
“We have to move forward, to the future where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules,’’ he told roughly 8,000 people at the Verizon Wireless Arena-Stuart C. Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. “That’s the choice in this election.’’
Hold on. Can a sitting president presiding over a sputtering economy still be an agent of “hope and change?’’ No way, say his Republican opponents, who have remade his slogan from 2008 into “hype and blame.’’
But in rousing speeches Saturday at what the campaign billed as his first “official’’ rallies here and in Columbus, Ohio, Obama tried to make the case. “You tell them it’s still about hope. You tell them it’s still about change,’’ he said. While acknowledging the economy is still “facing a bunch of headwinds,’’ forward is the new mantra, suggesting the reverse is where presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney would take the country.
It’s a more carefully branded reprise of the line Obama used during the 2010 midterm campaign, when he urged voters not got to give the car keys back the Republican Party because they would run the country into a ditch. Now, his own reelection is on the line.
This is no Rose Garden campaign with an incumbent rising above the fray. Not with and a trillion-dollar budget deficit and unemployment still hovering above 8 percent. Obama told the crowd they would have to work “even harder’’ than they did four years ago.
The president’s goal to frame the election not as a referendum on his administration but as a choice between two competing visions has been clear since he launched his reelection bid a year ago. Now that aim is as overt as his new attack ad airing in Virginia and two other swing states, deriding presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a corporate vulture – with a Swiss bank account to boot. Sullying his image is imperative while voters are just starting to form impressions of Romney and get their heads into the general election. The president doesn’t even want you to remember his name; he frequently referred to him as “my opponent.’’
Obama’s speech laid the groundwork for the attacks on Romney that will become familiar over the next six months: He’s out of touch with ordinary Americans. He wants to give tax cuts to the rich at the expense of the middle class. “He sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money, the rest of us will automatically prosper as well,’’ Obama said. Seeking to yoke the former Massachusetts governor and corporate executive to Washington, Obama said he would “rubber stamp’’ the extremist agenda put forth by “his friends in Congress.’’
As expected, some of the gaffes Romney made during the primary have been repackaged as zingers for the general election. “Corporations aren't people; people are people,’’ Obama said.
The rally came one day after the federal government reported that only 115,000 jobs were added in April. Romney said the number should be more like 500,000, a figure Democrats dismissed as unrealistic.
“No matter how many lofty campaign speeches President Obama gives, the fact remains that American families are struggling on his watch: to pay their bills, find a job and keep their homes,’’ said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “While President Obama all but ignored his record over three and a half years in office, the American people won’t. This November, they will hold him accountable for his broken promises and ineffective leadership.”
While Obama doesn’t want the election to loom only as a verdict on his administration, he did recount his major accomplishments: a major health insurance overhaul, winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an economy that is adding jobs every month.
Once reliably Republican in presidential elections, Virginia has emerged as a top battleground in 2012. Romney spent Wednesday and Thursday in the state and is returning next week. Obama was the first Democratic nominee to carry the state since Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964, but Republicans swiftly countered by picking up the governor’s mansion, three more congressional seats and control of the state Senate in the last three years.
A Washington Post poll released this week found Obama leading Romney 51 to 44 percent in Virginia, with a double-digit edge among women. Seeking to hold that advantage, Obama warned that Romney would limit access to abortion rights, Planned Parenthood and birth control. “We are not turning back the clock,’’ he said.
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