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Obama draws on spirit of '08 at campaign launch

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


RICHMOND, Va. — President Obama launched his bid for a second term Saturday by working to mobilize supporters with a forward-looking message in the face of challenges that include sluggish economic recovery.

The question facing voters, he told a boisterous crowd during the second stop on the official launch of his re-election campaign, isn't whether Americans are better off today than four years ago.  "The real question," he said, is "how we’ll be doing tomorrow."

Obama tried to accomplish this in two ways: Seeking to rekindle the enthusiasm surrounding his 2008 candidacy, and sending stark warnings about what it would mean if his presumptive Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, were elected.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave at a campaign event May 5 in Richmond, Va.

The word ‘Forward’ printed on placards was held by the crowds at both rallies, a kind of 2.0 version of the ‘hope and change’ theme that propelled the Obama campaign in 2008. The crowds at each were loud and enthusiastic, though the Romney campaign was quick to note that the Columbus arena wasn't filled to capacity. Both crowds were heavy on students, and the Richmond rally had a number of African-Americans in attendance, reflecting the area's large black population.

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

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Saturday: "No matter how many lofty campaign speeches President Obama gives, the fact remains that American families are struggling on his watch: to pay their bills, find a job and keep their homes.”

That statement came because the former Massachusetts governor found himself on the receiving end of a broadside by the president on Saturday, one that took aim at a cornerstone of Romney's campaign, his claim of economic competence.

"When a woman in Iowa shared the story of her financial struggles, he responded with economic theory," Obama said, painting Romney as out-of-touch.

"Corporations aren't people, people are people!" Obama later added, dredging up Romney's quote at the Iowa state fair, when he compared corporations to individuals.

The election may hinge on the economy, but Obama's first formal day of campaigning suggested he won't cede that issue to Romney. He and the first lady both played to broad middle class frustration about diminishing social mobility.

"It's that fundamental promise that no matter who you are or how you started out—if you work hard, you can build a decent life for yourself and yes, an even better life for your kids, and an even better life for your kids," First Lady Michelle Obama said in Columbus.

There was much about Obama's campaign launch that seemed familiar from his 2008 campaign.

He said he was still "fired up" and "ready to go," drawing on a campaign slogan from his last election. His two stops on Saturday were in Columbus, Ohio and Richmond, Va. — the state capitals of two crucial swing states Obama had won against Sen. John McCain. And two staple blocs of Obama's 2008 coalition, those young voters and black voters, showed up in throngs for this weekend's events.

He sought, in no uncertain terms, to draw a line from their effort that year to this fall's campaign, taking strides to remind them of the accomplishments in the meanwhile — his health care law, Wall Street reform, winding down the war in Iraq and killing Osama bin Laden, among other initiatives.

Melissa Harris-Perry and her panelists discuss President Obama's new campaign slogan of "forward," and how Republicans are reacting to his message.

"I didn’t run, and you didn’t work your hearts out, just to win an election," Obama said in Richmond.

He added, toward the end of his remarks: "If people ask you ‘what’s this campaign about?’ you tell them it’s still about hope. You tell them it’s still about change."

But the heady optimism from 2008 has been tempered, namely by an anemic economic recovery. The April jobs report found the U.S. economy added 115,000 jobs last month, falling below expectations and suggesting that the pace of hiring has slowed.

Perhaps in recognition of the new political reality, Obama dropped the gloves versus Romney and sharply criticized the former Massachusetts governor, linking him also to a deeply unpopular Republican House of Representatives.

"For the last few years, the Republicans who run this Congress have insisted that we go right back to the policies that created this mess in the first place," Obama said. "And now, after a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a champion — they have found a nominee for president who has promised to rubber-stamp this agenda if he has the chance."

It might not have been the lofty rhetoric that drew so many admirers to Obama in 2008, but these new, sharper themes in this campaign still resonate with the president's most ardent supporters.

"I'm just as enthusiastic as the last time, because I think it's going to be a race between an average joe and a multimillionaire," said Marc René of Richmond, an emigre from Haiti in 1994 who works at a local nonprofit.

"My wife and I work, we have great careers, but we still try to make end's meet. We don't have a net worth of $280 million dollars," he said.

Meaghan Mcinnis of Richmond, a relatively recent college graduate who lost one of her first jobs out of school before finding a new one, attended the rally with her friend Jamie Dalton. Both women said they feared the notion of Republican-led "war on women" aggressively messaged by Democrats.

"I feel like there are much bigger issues, and I don't appreciate that 50 and 60-year-old men are making decisions for my 20-something-year-old body," said Mcinnis.