Barack Obama once wanted to “Win the Future.” Now he's just hoping to get there. "Forward" is the new message of his re-election campaign, which he outlined Saturday in the first two official speeches of his 2012 presidential campaign. While his message still contains the old slogan’s optimism of a brighter tomorrow, the force of the president's new argument is not so much that Americans could achieve greatness but that they must lock arms to keep Mitt Romney from dragging the country back to a dark past. Hope and change are still alive, said the president, referring to his 2008 election themes. But this time fear is also his running mate.
The president spoke in Ohio and Virginia, two battleground states. Though the day was billed as Obama’s first official campaign day, it was really just the day that he dropped the last veil. The president, of course, has been campaigning for some time now. He's been in Ohio and Virginia a lot. For months, his domestic travel has rarely taken him outside of a battleground state. The issues he focuses on are aimed at key voting blocs. He's held regular meetings with his campaign strategists in the White House. The surest sign that he’s been campaigning has been the regular denials from administration officials that the president was engaged in campaigning.
What made Saturday notable, however, is that the president referred more directly to his opponent than he has before. Romney is now real, and Obama started right away to build the case for why the former governor is uniquely qualified to screw things up. The short version: He has a defect born of party and experience.
His first task was to tie Romney to the unpopular House Republicans. "Now after a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a nominee who will rubber stamp this agenda if he gets a chance."
Then Obama turned to Romney the person. He praised him as a patriot and family man—right before he described him as constitutionally incapable of understanding the national moment. Obama, who often has been characterized as too lawyerly and professorial, said Romney was too obtuse to understand regular people and their struggles. Romney had drawn the wrong lessons from being governor and running a "large financial firm." (Expect Obama to make many references to his “financial firm”; Romney prefers “business,” a more benign word that brings to mind a chain of restaurants or a manufacturer instead of money manipulators.)
The president recounted how a woman from Iowa (swing state!) shared a story of her struggles and Romney responded by talking about productivity. The problem is not productivity, said Obama, but that as hard as people are working their wages aren't going up. "Governor Romney doesn't seem to get that." (Romney had other reactions to suffering Iowa female voters.)
Both candidates are in a race to show that the other is out of touch. This was Obama's opening gambit. He would like it if the rest of the campaign is simply a competition between which of the two men can empathize in public with voters. Obama isn’t great at it, but Romney is worse. "Corporations aren't people," said Obama, rebutting a line Romney argued during the Republican primary, "people are people."
The bulk of the speech outlined the stakes as we've heard the president outline them before. This election is a choice he pointed out repeatedly, between his vision of government that helps people achieve their dreams and Republicans who want lower taxes and less regulation that he says will make the water dirtier, rob students of a chance to get an education, and ignore displaced workers who want a chance to retrain for new jobs. "This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class," said Obama.
The president outlined a host of issues that affected women—from contraception to abortion—that were under threat. To show just how much he wants to goose his lead with this important voting bloc, he made a rare reference to his daughters. “I want women to control their own health choices just like I want my daughters to have the same opportunities as your sons! We are not turning back the clock! We are moving forward!”
The president made several references to his blockbuster 2008 campaign arguing that hope and chance were still alive. But the rhetorical sleights of hand highlighted just how tough things will be for him. He tried to reframe the choice as Romney has presented it. The election is not a question of whether people are better off, he said, but whether they will be better off. (Alas, in 2008 the president said "the real question is will this country be better off four years from now.") At other times today, his attempt to argue that the country is on the path to success and can't afford to turn back set him up for some awkward sound-bites. Acknowledging that the progress he wants to continue hasn't been enough, the president asked the audience "Are we satisfied?" The crowd roared "No!" If Mitt Romney doesn't ask the exact same question of his audiences from now until Election Day his advisers should lose their licenses.