COLUMBUS — Two major rallies nearly 500 miles apart in a matter of hours. Two battleground red-turned-blue states considered critical stops on the road to the White House.
Appearing today before some 14,000 gathered on the campus of Ohio State University, President Barack Obama sought to reignite the “Yes we can!” passion that helped carry him to election in 2008.
“It’s still about hope,” Mr. Obama told the crowd. “It’s still about change. It’s still about ordinary people who believe in the face of great odds that we can make a difference in the life of this country. Because I still believe, Ohio.
“I still believe we are not as divided as our politics suggest,” he said. “I still believe we have more in common than pundits tell us. We’re not Democrats or Republicans, but Americans first and foremost.”
The rally at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus was labeled the official kickoff of his campaign, but there’s no doubt that the campaign has been on for months and that Ohio is again in the crosshairs. It marked the fifth time that the President has been in Ohio just this year, and he’s been here 21 times since he took office.
Later today he planned a similar rally at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, a traditionally red state that turned blue in 2008 and where demographic changes have made it more of a true swing state.
Mr. Obama attempted to draw a line between his own presidency while characterizing presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a “rubber stamp” for the Republican policies that preceded him.
“It was a house of cards that collapsed in the most destructive crisis since the Great Depression. …” Mr. Obama said. “It was tough. But I tell you what, Ohio. The American people are tough. All across this country people like you dug in. Some of you retrained. Some of you went back to school. …”
At the same time, he acknowledged the pain that still exists more than three years into his presidency. Two years ago, when campaigning on the Ohio State campus for former Gov. Ted Strickland, he drew some 35,000 people. There were a lot of empty seats today in the Schottenstein, which seats 20,000.
“Yes, there were setbacks,” Mr. Obama said. “Yes, there were disappointments, but we didn’t quit. We don’t quit. Together we’re fighting our way back.”
The rally came as the latest unemployment numbers gave Mr. Obama little to crow about. The nation’s unemployment rate dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 percent in March, but the rate at which the economy has been adding jobs again slowed and the labor force shrunk as people dropped out of the labor market.
The good news for Mr. Obama, however, is that unemployment in battleground Ohio is below the national average, 7.5 percent in March. He has taken at least partial credit for that by pointing to the strong comeback of the auto industry that has added manufacturing capacity, shifts, and employees following the taxpayer fueled bailout and controlled bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors.
“Today our auto industry is back on top of the world,” Mr. Obama said. “Manufacturers started investing again, adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. Business got back to basics. Exports surged. Over 4 million jobs were created in the last four years, more than 1 million of those in the last six months alone. Are we satisfied? Of course not.
“This crisis took years to develop, and the economy is still facing headwinds, and it will take persistent effort, yours and mine, for America to fully recover,” he said. “That’s the truth. We all know it.”
He attempted to turn the traditional election-year question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?,” on its head.
“The question that will actually make a difference in your life and the lives of our children is not about how we’re doing today but how we’ll be doing tomorrow,” he said. “When we look back four years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, won’t we be better off if we have the courage to keep moving ahead? That’s the question in this election … and the outcome is entirely up to you.”
And playing up what is considered to be one of his election-year strengths, Mr. Obama turned to foreign policy.
“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq,” Mr. Obama said. “Osama bid Laden is no longer a threat to this country. Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and by 2014 the war in Afghanistan will be over. America’s safer and more respected. …”
A Quinnipiac Poll last week showed that the fight for must-win Ohio is a statistical tie with Mr. Obama holding a slight 44-42 percent edge over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. There has been speculation that Mr. Romney could pick Rob Portman, current U.S. senator and former President George W. Bush’s budget director, as his running mate in a bid to tip Ohio into the red state column.
No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, and no Democrat has done it since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Mr. Romney has preferred much smaller venues for his events. He will hold a town hall meeting on Monday at Stamco Industries, Inc., a Cleveland metal stamping company.
“This speech was a retread, a cut-and-paste job of President Obama’s 2008 campaign rhetoric,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams, who was in the Ohio State crowd. “Unfortunately for him, this time around he has a record to defend, a record of exploding deficits, job losses, and fiscal mismanagement in Washington.”
He dismissed Mr. Obama’s suggestion that Mr. Romney would be a “rubber stamp” for what Mr. Obama characterized as the tax cut, deficit building, war on a credit card policies under President George W. Bush that he said helped lead to the economic crisis.
“Mitt Romney is the only candidate running in this race who is from outside Washington,” Mr. Williams said. “He’s been a businessman and an executive his entire life, somebody who’s made his own decisions. This President has had three years in office and he’s failed to show any competent leadership for this country.”
Among those in the crowd was Claudia Sebree-Pressley, chief executive officer of Aunt Minnie’s, which claims to be the only frozen food with an African-American woman, her mother Minnie Sebree, on the box. The Toledo-headquartered company can be found in many eastern and southern state stores, but doesn’t have a presence yet in grocery store freezers in Ohio.
Ms. Sebree-Pressley has volunteered for the Obama campaign and helped to organize two busloads from Toledo to attend the Schottenstein Center rally. She argued that Republicans don’t have a monopoly on CEOs.
“It’s not that [Mr. Obama] has done anything for me financially,” she said. “I trust him … I trust him with this country. I trust him with my kids. The atmosphere is so much better as far as business. I’m surviving. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m surviving. That’s why so many of us will vote for him.”