President Obama greets supporters at a campaign kickoff rally at Ohio State… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Obama officially kicked off his reelection campaign on Saturday by blasting the economic policies of likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney and arguing that Americans would be better off under four more years guided by his own vision for the country.
Speaking at Ohio State University, Obama blamed the trickle-down policies of the past for the current economic situation and questioned whether a return to the Republican school of thought was a good idea.
"Over and over again, they will tell you that America is down and out, and they'll tell you who to blame, and ask if you're better off than you were before the worst crisis in our lifetime," Obama said. "The real question — the question that will actually make a difference in your life and in the lives of your children — is not just about how we're doing today. It's about how we'll be doing tomorrow."
It was a new take on the familiar standard for incumbent presidents, asking not whether individual voters are better off now than four years ago but whether they expect to be better off a few years hence.
Obama has been openly making the case for his reelection for more than a year, in official trips and public events focused on his agenda before Congress and efforts to revitalize the economy.
But Saturday's rallies — one here in the afternoon and one at night at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond — were a first for the 2012 effort, featuring an unabashed attempt to reframe the discussion. The events saw the introduction of a new banner theme, "Forward," use of jumbo screens to debut campaign videos and unveiling of a new stump speech.
And it was the first time Obama had spoken Romney's name several times in one address, calling him out directly on a range of issues including foreign policy and tax breaks for the wealthy.
"This time, they want to give banks and insurance companies even more power to do as they please," Obama said. "And now, after a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a nominee for president who has promised to rubber-stamp this agenda if he gets the chance."
Befitting the new stage of the campaign, Republican representatives offered a counter-narrative to Obama's story. Several were present to offer their version of the Obama administration.
"Now the president has to run on his record," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-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 three and a half years."
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul challenged Obama's score card on kitchen-table issues, saying, "American families are struggling on his watch, to pay the bills, find a job and keep their homes."
The president's day in the two college basketball arenas was about playing offense, though, and he led with First Lady Michelle Obama both times.
Appearing in a sleeveless dress of the exact sky-blue hue as the new "Forward" signs, the first lady introduced her husband to supporters in Columbus as "awesome."
At several points, she punched the air like a boxer.
She told the story of Barack, a man raised by a single mother who always had to think about how to pay the bills.
"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 between his story and that of Romney, son of a governor and a multimillionaire who supports tax breaks for the wealthy.
Speaking before a crowd of about 14,000 in Columbus, Obama acknowledged "setbacks" for the country as it emerged from a major recession. He said that the economy still faced "head winds" and that full recovery would require "sustained, persistent effort."
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.
Obama's new speech contains some of the same ambition and scope of his kickoff address of February 2007. That day, Obama spoke of "destiny calling," and he urged listeners to transform the nation.
There were strains of those ideas in the Saturday message, as well as echoes of the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched his national career. The country is not as divided as politics would suggest, he said, and its people are first and foremost Americans, not partisans.
If people ask what the campaign is about in 2012, Obama said, "You tell them it's still about hope."
As Obama made his way from Columbus to Richmond, Republicans sent around a pictorial comparison of the 2007 and 2012 kickoffs. In the 2007 event, a throng of thousands swamped the Illinois State Capitol, where Obama spoke.
The picture of the arena in Columbus showed plenty of floor space and open banks of seating. The official crowd count hit 14,000, well below the capacity of 20,000.
While they waited for the president, those present got a tutorial on how to call friends and neighbors to talk about Obama. They were encouraged to text the Obama campaign on the spot and register to volunteer.
And just before the first lady stepped onstage, the crowds watched a new video on the South Carolina supporter, a woman in her church hat, who introduced Obama to the phrase that became a 2008 mantra. "Fired up! Ready to go!" she said on the video, as the crowd responded.
As Obama left the stage here, the crowd was chanting it as campaign volunteers scrambled to get the names down on their rolls.
Parsons reported from Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Va., and Memoli from Washington.