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Analysis: Obama re-election launch seeks to define stakes of campaign

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet suporters after a campaign event Saturday at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio.

RICHMOND, Virginia -- In back-to-back speeches in two key swing states, the Obama campaign indicated how it wants to define the general election: as a choice between a tool of congressional Republicans who wants to undo the president’s first-term agenda and an incumbent looking to spend the next four years building on his achievements.

The president seemed to tie his presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney to Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which Democrats use to represent congressional Republicans’ entire agenda. Obama warned that in Romney, the House GOP had a candidate who would be willing to gut Medicare and end regulations on insurance companies and banks – policies “that created this mess,” the president said.

“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,” Obama said at Ohio State University, his first stop of the day, later adhering to the same script at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

“We cannot give him that chance,” Obama continued.

The president also sought to define himself in his two speeches Saturday, employing populist themes that touch on those of several past presidential campaigns while remaining entirely unique to the Obama campaign. Using a sort of “values play” evocative of the pitches used by the Clinton campaign, the president’s wife, Michelle, underscored that he grew up in an environment where everybody played by the rules, sometimes struggling to get by.

“He is the son of a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills.  That’s who he is.  He’s the grandson of a woman who woke up before dawn every day to catch a bus to her job at the bank,” the first lady said of her husband in Columbus.

“So believe me, Barack knows what it means when a family struggles,” she continued.

Michelle Obama’s speech also employed a tactic from George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, in which the incumbent is portrayed as the familiar choice against an unknown risk.

“We all know what Barack Obama is -- who he is,” she said. “We all know what our president stands for, right?” she implored the audience.

There’s also a little bit of Harry Truman’s campaign evident in Obama’s pitch, as he warns supporters that they need to re-elect him in order to stop “those guys” in Congress who are threatening to pass items like the Ryan budget.

President Obama and the first lady hit the campaign trail on Saturday in key battleground states. NBC's Brian Moor reports.

“As long as I’m president of the United States, I will never allow Medicare to be turned into a voucher that would end the program as we know it,” Obama said. “That’s what’s at stake in this election.”

And in preventing Republicans from accomplishing their agenda, Obama is arguing, the lives of average Americans will continue to improve – even as he acknowledges they are not where they need to be currently.

So in a twist of Ronald Reagan’s “are you better off than you were four years ago” trope, which Romney is using, the president is asking his supporters if they think they are on the right direction to being better off, say, four years from now.

The real question, he said, “is not just about how we’re doing today. It’s about how we’ll be doing tomorrow.”

Obama drops gloves vs Romney in campaign launch

“Will we better off if more Americans get a better education? That’s the question. Will we better off if we depend less on foreign oil and more on our own ingenuity? That's the question.”

The decision to re-ask a different question to the "are you better off" refrain is a tacit acknowledgment by the campaign that the "are you better off" question isn't an easy one for voters to answer in the affirmative for Obama.

While his stump speech did copy some pages from past playbooks, one aspect of most presidential re-election pitches was absent from the president’s opening salvo: the introduction of a clear second-term agenda.

Instead, the president’s stump speech was all about protecting his first-term achievements like the health care reform law and developing alternative energy sources. And while, historically, second terms are mostly about preserving such accomplishments, there is usually at least a vague nod to what the president wants to get done in a second term.

But that was missing in Saturday’s speeches. Perhaps by the convention, the president will have a more direct pitch about what another four years will look like.

All about field operations
This election will likely be decided on the two groups of swing voters in American politics: that tiny slice of independents who actually do vacillate between the two parties, making up maybe 8 to 10 percent of the entire electorate, and those swing voters who “swing” between voting and not voting.

And while the Obama campaign will hold rallies like the two Saturday to generate media buzz, their more immediate concern is that they connect with exactly these swing voters – especially the second subset – which both the president and first lady seemed to make clear.

“We are going to win this thing the old-fashioned way,” the president said, emphasizing the need to go door to door and establish neighborhood-by-neighborhood teams of volunteers.

The first lady made a pitch directly to college students who, along with African-Americans, are the two groups who came out in the strongest numbers for the president but also run high risk of staying home in 2012.

“To all of the college students out there, all of you -- if you're going to be moving over the summer, remember to register at your new address in the fall. You got that? Get that done,” she urged.

Lost energy?
The crowds at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center were screaming enthusiastically, waving signs and chanting “Four more years! Four more years!”

But the arena did not reach its full capacity of 18,300, with about 4,000 of those seats remaining unfilled. Observers of the 2008 race know that the first Obama campaign would have been able to fill every seat.

But the crowds at both OSU and VCU were more enthusiastic than any so far at a Romney rally. And while the Republican Party has joyfully pointed out that the Obama campaign isn’t generating the same excitement that it did in 2008, the only campaign that has gotten more than 5,000 folks to show up is Ron Paul's, not Romney's.

And while the GOP has fun pointing out that Obama 12 isn't inspiring the response that Obama 08 is, it's worse for the party out of power. The real reason? This is going to be a negative campaign. And negative campaigns involving incumbents are simply different beasts.

It's a campaign in which both sides are painting a pessimistic view of life if the other side wins.

The Obama campaign did flex muscle the Romney campaign has yet to show: It can throw a big rally with supporters who are still gaga for their candidate. The little things that win close elections are something Team Obama is proving fairly adept at. Can Team Romney keep up on this front? It's an open question.