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."
Obama-Romney Ohio Showdown
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.
Obama to Discredit Romney
With slim chances the nation's economic picture will improve dramatically by November, strategists say Obama must more forcefully convince voters that Romney is an unacceptable alternative in the Oval Office, regardless of their personal financial situations.
Obama campaign officials hinted that the president would use his Ohio speech to continue that approach, casting Romney's economic proposals as "familiar and troubling: More budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy; fewer rules for Wall Street -- the same formula that benefitted a few, but that crashed our economy and devastated the middle class."
Obama will argue that he's moving the country forward and needs more time to turn things around, aides say.
Still, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll found the president facing deep skepticism about his economic plans less than five months before election day. Fifty-four percent of swing-voting independents see Obama's economic plans negatively, with just 38 percent holding a positive view.
Romney also has a negative rating on his economic plans but by a smaller margin -- 47 to 35 -- with more undecided voters. The dynamic affords Romney an opening to make his case and win support in the weeks ahead.
Overall, Americans respond negatively rather than positively to Obama's economic proposals by 50-43 percent, and to Romney's by 47-37 percent. The poll, conducted June 6-10, has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
"What can they say, what can he do? Congress won't pass anything that he puts out there; the House will barely consider it. They're not going to help Obama. They're delighted he's in the situation he's in," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, of Obama's economic plans.
"Any bits of data that are good [over the next five months], they have to spend money to push out there. They can't depend on free media to do it. They're going to need speeches, campaign events and TV advertising to get the good news out there to try to create the belief in just enough people in the swing states," he said. "They have to use what they're given. It's a bit of luck now."
White House allies and veterans of Democratic presidential campaigns insist there is no reason for panic and still plenty of time for Obama to make his case.
"If this was a baseball game, the Obama team would still be winning by a couple runs in the fifth inning and they may have not scored more runs in the fifth but they're still winning the game" said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network and member of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign team, citing electoral map and recent polling data in swing states.
"We're at the beginning of this message season. They've got plenty of time to develop messages with the electorate and they do have a plan that's going to move the electorate through stages of understanding about Mitt Romney," he said.
"What they're doing now at this stage in the evolution is spending a lot of time talking about Mitt himself and his bad ideas. The way they're going to explain Mitt's bad ideas is by his embrace of the [Rep. Paul] Ryan budget plan. That's where this is headed," he said.