President Obama Hits Romney Directly at First Re-election Rally

(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP Photo)

COLUMBUS, Ohio - President Obama kicked off his re-election campaign rally today before a sea of Ohioans holding blue "Forward" signs at The Ohio State University.

Standing casually in shirtsleeves, the president for the first time drew direct contrasts between himself and the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, by name.

"Governor Romney is a patriotic American who's raised a wonderful family" and has "much to be proud of" with his business successes, Obama said. "But I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences."

"Somehow he and his friends in Congress think that the same bad ideas will lead to a different result, or they are just hoping you won't remember what happened the last time we tried it their way," he said of the Republican's economic philosophy. "Ohio, I'm here to say we were there, we remember, and we are not going back. We are moving this country forward."

The comments mark the debut of his "Forward" slogan, what the campaign hopes will be a continuance of the "Change" started four years ago. Aides say they believe the motto effectively sells Obama's progress on the economy - including Friday's lackluster jobs report - because a slow recovery is better than the alternative, going in the opposite direction.

He gave a nod to the anemic jobs picture and sluggish economic growth today:  "It will take a sustained, persistent effort - yours and mine - for America to fully recover [...] Now we face a choice. The last few years the Republicans who run this Congress have insisted we go right back to the policies that created this mess.

"And now after a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a nominee for president who's promised to rubber stamp this agenda if he gets the chance," he said.

Obama said Ohioans "couldn't afford" to give Romney that chance, and that this election was "a make or break moment for the middle class."

The president repeatedly dinged Romney his party in congress for "out of touch" statements from the past: "Corporations aren't people. People are people," he said.

"My opponent said it was tragic to end the war in Iraq," he said. "He said he won't set a timeline for ending the war in Afghanistan. I have, and I intend to keep it.

"My opponent won't tell us how he'd pay for his new $5 trillion tax cut, a tax cut that gives an average of $250,000 to every millionaire in this country," he said. "But we know the bill for that tax cut will either be passed on to our children or it will be paid for by a whole lot of ordinary Americans. That's what we know. And I refuse to let that happen again.

"We don't need another political fight about ending a woman's right to choose, or getting rid of Planned Parenthood, or taking away access to affordable birth control," he said. "We're not going to eliminate the EPA, we're not going to roll back bargaining rights that generations of workers fought for."

Obama ran through a litany of familiar policy proposals - boosting college access, investing in clean energy technologies, funding more infrastructure projects - with the tagline, "That's why I'm running for president."

"On issue after issue we can't afford to spend the next four years going backward," he said.

Today's remarks offer a good glimpse of how the Obama campaign's strategy will play out in the months ahead, attempting to paint his rival in the same colors as the last occupant of the Oval Office, President George W. Bush. Similarly, the reelection effort is hoping to return to the grassroots student popularity that helped propel him to the White House in 2008.

Obama told the crowd he plans to win "the old fashioned way, door by door, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood."

"We have come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years," he said. "We have to move forward to the future we imagined in 2008 where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. That's the choice in this election and that's why I'm running for a second term as President of the United States."

The president asked voters if they had the "courage" to move forward.

First lady Michelle Obama introduced her husband at the event, after a number of democratic organizers and lawmakers. Sen. Sherrod Brown, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, and former astronaut and Sen. John Glenn were among those to take turns at the podium.

There were 14,000 supporters at the stadium for the rally, according to the local fire department. While the campaign was prepared for overflow crowds in Ohio and a later event in Virginia, none materialized.

The Republican National Committee and Romney campaign released rebuttal statements to the president's outing today. RNC chairman Reince Priebus says the president has failed to live up to the expectations he gave voters in the last election cycle.

"Three and a half years after running on hope and change, Barack Obama kicked off his campaign with more divisive rhetoric and showed us he really is running on hype and blame," he said.

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Americans in November will "hold him accountable for his broken promises and ineffective leadership."

While today marks the first public event of Obama's reelection effort, members of GOP contend recent official presidential travel to battleground states amounted to the same effect.

However, during the 2004 election Democrats leveled the same charge against then-President George W. Bush for stumping on tax-payer dollar.

The president traveled to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond for another rally immediately after the Ohio stop. The early evening venue reached building capacity with a crowd of 8,000.

This blog was updated at 5:45 PM.