Obama to defend economic record, hit Romney, in high-stakes Ohio speech

President Barack Obama travels Thursday to the critical electoral battleground of Ohio to deliver his first major economic speech of the general election. He will offer a ringing defense of his handling of the economic recovery, tell voters he feels their pain, and warn them against picking Mitt Romney in November.

"It is a campaign speech," White House press secretary Jay Carney candidly told reporters on Wednesday.

The embattled incumbent's remarks at the Cuyahoga Community College Metropolitan Campus in Cleveland will center on a plea for patience with the sputtering recovery — the top issue on voters' minds, and Obama's most glaring political vulnerability.

"There is no question that we are a long way from where we need to be. The hole was deep, and we are only part way out of it," Carney said.

On the eve of the speech, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll found that independent swing voters are decidedly bearish on his approach.

Only 38 percent of those up-for-grabs Americans have favorable views of Obama's economic plans, with a majority (54 percent) dissaproving. The good news for the embattled president? They aren't much more impressed by Romney's economic ideas—47 percent rate his approach unfavorably, with just 35 percent in favor. Obama also hopes his speech will help him take back the initiative on the economy after a spate of bad news — including a downbeat job report, a grim assessment showing Americans' net worth cratered during the 2007-2008 meltdown — and a self-inflicted wound delivered Friday when he declared "the private sector is doing fine" compared to cash-strapped state and local governments.

"He was making, I think, an objectively obvious point, which is, compared to a situation where so-called public sector workers -- and that sounds very bland and bureaucratic, but we're talking about teachers and firefighters and police officers -- have been laid off in droves, and compared that to a situation where the private sector has created 4.3 million jobs, the public sector is an example of weakness by comparison," Carney said.

Obama, whose job approval ratings have consistently been stuck in the 40s, will urge voters to see the November election as a choice between him and Romney, not as a referendum on his record since taking office in January 2009.

"The President believes that this election is a fundamental choice between two very different visions for how we grow the economy, create middle-class jobs and pay down our debt," Carney said.

The spokesman accused Romney of looking to double down on policies, like tax cuts for the very wealthy, pursued under George W. Bush.

"Does anybody argue that it worked?  And yet, what we've seen proposed is the very same policies and then some," Carney said. "That is part of the debate that we'll have in the fall."

Anticipating Obama's line of attack, Romney told an influential trade group in Washington on Wednesday that he wasn't a throwback.

"I'm not going back to a prior time," Romney told the Business Roundtable. "This is a new time."

And Romney pressed Americans to resist Obama's "eloquent" appeals, insisting that "words are cheap" and that the country cannot afford another four years of the president's approach.

"This has been a tepid and unfortunate recovery for the American people," the former Massachusetts governor said. "It breaks my heart."

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