RICHMOND, Va. — President Barack Obama opened an aggressive phase of his re-election campaign Saturday with rallies in Ohio and Virginia that acknowledged great economic struggle but summoned the optimism that propelled him four years ago while pointedly attacking his Republican rival.
"Yes, there were setbacks. Yes, there were disappointments. But we didn't quit. We don't quit. Together, we're fighting our way back," Obama said to a crowd of 8,000 at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"We're still fired up. We're still ready to go," he said to deafening applause.
For a moment, at least, it was 2008, the president's rolled-up sleeves projecting eagerness. But it's 2012, and Obama has significant challenges heading into the general election with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Obama is the incumbent now, and for all the advantages that affords him, it also puts his record on display. He can point to accomplishments but must shoulder Americans' frustration with a still-struggling economy.
He must translate the enthusiasm inside the gym here to Democrats across the country, but also win over weary independents who were key to his 2008 success. And he faces the tricky balance of communicating the good and bad while making the case for four more years.
"We have come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years," Obama said. "Virginia, we have to move forward, to the future we imagined in 2008."
Large banners, cast in a familiar light blue, captured that sentiment in a word: Forward.
Obama's central argument is that the country under his leadership persevered in exceedingly difficult times and cannot afford to slip back. He displayed a harder edge than four years ago in hopes of defining Romney as a throwback and protector of big business and the wealthy.
"I don't care how many ways you try to explain it: Corporations aren't people. People are people," Obama said, referring to a remark Romney made during the GOP caucuses in Iowa. He tried to spin the worries of ordinary Americans into a warning.
"I've heard from too many people wondering why they haven't been able to get one of the jobs that have been created; why their home is still under water; why their family hasn't yet been touched by the recovery," Obama said. "The other side won't be offering these Americans a real answer to these questions."
The Romney campaign on Saturday cast Obama as a failure, saying he had broken his promise to jump-start the economy.
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Obama's 2008 campaign was a marketing dream, a young, fresh and historic figure propelled by a simple, inclusive slogan of hope and change.
"Four years ago he was running against the party of a massively unpopular president and Democrats were overjoyed about voting," said Peter A. Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "John McCain wasn't George Bush, but he might as well have been."
The optimism clashed early with a darkening economy, the worst in a generation. Obama pursued the economic stimulus against universal Republican opposition and hundreds of billions of dollars produced results that were often hard to see. He pursued a health care overhaul in the face of the same partisanship and calls from even his own party to focus more on jobs. At the same time, he upset liberals by not going far enough on health care and backing down on environmental regulations.
"When you're the incumbent, you make decisions that people like and don't like," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. But he repeated what has become an unofficial slogan of sorts: Osama bin Laden is dead and Detroit is alive, themes Obama hit Saturday.
"When some wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt," Obama said, "we made a bet on American workers, on the ingenuity of American companies. And today, our auto industry is back on top of the world."
The economy has shown flickers of recovery, but stubbornly so. Jobs were added at a slower rate for the second straight month in April, and while the unemployment rate fell a notch to 8.1 percent, it was due to hundreds of thousands of people who quit looking for work.
A Quinnipiac poll last week showed tight races in three swing states — Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Virginia, which Obama won in 2008 after years of GOP dominance, is crucial as well.
"This may well be the state that decides who the next president is," Romney said Thursday in Portsmouth, his second stop in Virginia in a week.
Nationally, Obama has a slight edge, and both sides expect a tight race that will rise and fall with the economy.
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The Richmond rally and the one earlier Saturday at Ohio State University in Columbus were designed to rekindle enthusiasm among young voters, who turned out in waves for Obama in 2008. The economy has been brutal for recent college graduates.
"The biggest problem we're going to have is people are fed up with the system," said Susan Smith, a liberal activist from the Tampa Bay area. "I look at the Occupy movement and I think that's what it's about."
Smith said the disillusionment is fueled in part by the growing influence of Super PACs, groups that have taken advantage of a landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on corporate and union money in politics to raise tens of millions for hard-hitting TV ad campaigns. Republicans have made better use of Super PACs, seeing the dividends during midterm elections in which Democrats lost control of the House, further handicapping Obama.
"We'll have to contend with even more negative ads, with even more cynicism and nastiness, and sometimes just plain foolishness," Obama said Saturday, asserting the ads would "exploit people's frustrations for my opponent's political gain."
His attacks on Romney indicate he plans to play rough, a move that pleases Democrats eager for a tougher attitude.
Mixed signals were apparent in the booming Richmond arena. "He's got it in the bag," said Tyra Oliver, 31, who works in finance. But in the next breath she conceded that the enthusiasm is off: "I'm a little worried about that."
The campaign went to great lengths to translate the energy beyond the event. People were asked to pull out their phones and call a friend and ask them to get involved. Volunteers went around signing up recruits, and an announcer warned people to have their ID on hand when they went to vote, a reference to new laws put in place across the country by Republican legislatures.
First lady Michelle Obama reminded college graduates to make sure they register to vote at their new address in the fall and appealed to a sense of personal responsibility.
"With every door you knock on, with every call you make, with every conversation you have, I want you to remember that this could be the one that makes the difference," she said.
The message resonated with D'Juan Thomas, 24. He did not vote in 2008. Now, when Obama needs him most, he is headed to the polls. "As long as he keeps us motivated and believing, I think he'll get re-elected."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @learyreports on Twitter.