COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Barack Obama formally launched his re-election campaign here Saturday with some old favorites, from "fired up, ready to go" to a closing bow to "hope and change." But almost everything else about the day spoke to the differences between his first and second runs for the president.
The president used his rallies to try to begin to disqualify Mitt Romney. Yet the coming election is still more about him than his Republican rival. Obama's biggest opponent may be an economy that is still struggling to gain the kind of momentum that will convince voters that the recession is truly over.
It was perhaps a coincidence in timing that the president's opening events came just a day after a tepid employment report that showed only modest private-sector job creation. The unemployment rate ticked down a tenth of a percentage point, but only because the labor force shrank as discouraged Americans gave up looking for work.
The general election gets under way against that backdrop, neither so gloomy as to make it all but certain that the president will be defeated nor good enough to give Democrats real confidence that the president's re-election is all but assured. For the next months, Obama and Romney are both hostages to the economic statistics even as they slug it out on the campaign trail.
Obama showed he is ready for the fight. His campaign skills have lost little in the four years since iconic rallies became the trademark of his candidacy. Introduced by first lady Michelle Obama, he walked onto a runway in the Schottenstein Center on the campus of Ohio State University, paused, smiled, waved and smiled again.
After a few more strides, he hugged and kissed his wife, stepped to the microphone — and then proceeded to try to shred Romney and the Republicans. His rival, Obama said, is a patriotic American with a fine family and experience in the private sector and with running a state.
But Romney "has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences," the president said. "He sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money, the rest of us will automatically prosper as well."
He pulled from Romney's statements on the campaign trail and the agenda of a congressional wing of the Republican Party that he portrayed as backward-looking and harmful to the country's future. He suggested that Romney is a man out of touch with the lives and aspirations of working Americans and in league with the wealthiest in society.
"I don't know how many times you try to explain it," he said, referring to a Romney comment the Democrats love to quote. "Corporations aren't people. People are people."
Though the president has been campaigning for months, Obama's advisers billed Saturday's rallies in the battleground states of Ohio and Virginia as an opportunity to draw distinctions with Romney and the Republicans in ways he had not done previously.
The contrasts he drew were more sharply etched and at times hard-edged. The litany was long. Tax cuts. Health care. Education. Financial regulation. Energy. Climate change. Women's rights. Setting a timetable for ending the war in Afghanistan.
"We can't afford to spend the next four years going backward," he said. "We just cannot turn back now."
Those issues will be at the center of the debate between the president and the former Massachusetts governor. But for many voters, the first question they will try to answer is likely to be whether the country truly is going forward fast enough to satisfy them.
If their conclusion is no, the second is whether they think the president has the vision and the strength of leadership to get the country where they want it to go. He will be measured against that standard as much as against comparisons with Romney.
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