President Obama will use a speech in Ohio today effectively to hit a reset button on his re-election campaign, following a stretch of bad economic news and messaging missteps that have shaken Democrats' confidence and caused some allies to sound the alarm.
At a community college outside Cleveland, Obama will seek to frame the economic debate with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, casting the November election as a stark choice rather than a referendum on his record. He will also warn that a President Romney would doom the middle class.
"Gov. Romney and his allies in Congress believe that if you simply take away regulations and cut taxes by trillions of dollars, the market will solve all our problems on its own," said a campaign official describing the arc of Obama's speech. "The President believes the economy grows not from the top down, but from the middle class up, and he has an economic plan to do that."
It's a case that Obama has been pushing for weeks in smaller campaign appearances with donors and grassroots volunteers. But he's now under pressure to articulate it more convincingly and broadly, as polls show a tightening race headed into the summer with many swing voters still making up their minds about the Republican nominee.
"You've got to be able to say, 'we've saved you from the abyss and we're moving incrementally forward,'" said a strategist affiliated with the Obama campaign. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, conceded, "That's just a tough message but it happens to be the environment you're in."
"You've also got to take this period to help educate the American public as to who is this guy; let's fill in the blanks," the strategist said.
Some Democrats, pointing to recent focus groups and polling data, worried publicly this week that Obama's pitch on progress in the economy isn't resonating with voters in key states, leaving him politically vulnerable and at risk of appearing out of touch. There are also concerns in some circles that attacks on Romney's record in private equity and as governor are not sticking well enough.
White House and campaign officials insist that their game plan is working and will succeed over the long haul. They frequently note the president has high public opinion ratings on empathy with Americans who are struggling financially. And they say he has presented detailed legislative proposals that would immediately put more workers back on the job.
"The problem here isn't the President's campaign staff and message he's put together, it's the economy that he inherited and is working hard to fix," said former White House aide and senior Priorities USA strategist Bill Burton.
"Some of the brightest minds in politics work for President Obama. They won a historic election, guided through groundbreaking legislation, and are aware of the stiff political head winds that the President faces right now," Burton said. "I have no doubt they will endure more criticism, but that's just because that's what Democrats do. We complain -- loudly and frequently. I'd be worried if it weren't happening."
Romney, who is also in Ohio today, set the stage for a showdown on Wednesday, seizing on Democrats' skittishness over Obama's message and claiming the president will be irrevocably hamstrung by the economic record of his first term.
"My own view is that he will speak eloquently, but that words are cheap, and that the record of an individual is the basis upon which you determine whether they should continue to hold on to their job," Romney said at an event with business leaders in Washington.
"The record is that we have 23 million Americans that are out of work or stopped looking for work or underemployed," he said. "That is a compelling and a sad statistic. These are real people."
Romney will lay out his economic blueprint in Cincinnati at the same time Obama is set to speak in Cleveland. This is the first time the president and the presumptive GOP nominee will hold public campaign events in the same state on the same day.
"There's no state more important than Ohio," senior Romney strategist Russ Schriefer told reporters.
No candidate for president since 1960 has won an election without carrying Ohio. Obama captured the state by four points in 2008, 51 to 47 percent, over Sen. John McCain.
Polls show Obama is in a close race with Romney in Ohio, leading him 48 to 42 percent in an NBC/Marist poll from mid-May but neck and neck, 45 to 44 percent, in a Quinnipiac University poll in the state just a week earlier.