COLUMBUS, Ohio — Plunging into his campaign for a new term, President Barack Obama tore into Mitt Romney on Saturday as a willing and eager "rubber stamp" for conservative Republicans in Congress and an agenda to cut taxes for the rich, reduce spending on education and Medicare and enhance power that big banks and insurers hold over consumers.

Romney and his "friends in Congress think the same bad ideas will lead to a different result or they're just hoping you won't remember what happened the last time you tried it their way," the president told an audience estimated at over 10,000 partisans at what aides insisted was his first full-fledged political rally of the election year.

Six months before Election Day, the polls point to a close race between Obama and Romney, with the economy the overriding issue as the nation struggles to recover from the worst recession since the 1930s. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 8.1 percent nationally, although it has receded slowly and unevenly since peaking several months into the president's term. The most recent dip was due to discouraged jobless giving up their search for work.

Romney has staked his candidacy on an understanding of the economy, developed through a successful career as a businessman, and his promise to enact policies that stimulate job creation.

But Obama said his rival was merely doing the bidding of the conservative powerbrokers in Congress and has little understanding of the struggles of average Americans.

Romney "doesn't seem to understand that maximizing profits by whatever means necessary, whether it's through layoffs or outsourcing or tax avoidance, union busting, might not always be good for the average American or for the American economy," the president said.

"Why else would he want to cut his own taxes while raising them for 18 million Americans," Obama said of his multimillionaire opponent.

While Romney has yet to flesh out a detailed economic program, he and Republicans in Congress want to extend all the tax cuts that are due to expire at year's end. Obama and most Democrats want to let taxes rise for upper-income earners.

The president's campaign chose Ohio State University and Virginia Commonwealth University for the back-to-back rallies. Obama won both states in his successful race in 2008, although both have elected Republican governors since, and are expected to be hotly contested in the fall.

Obama has attended numerous fundraisers this election year, but over the escalating protests of Republicans, the White House has categorized all of his other appearances so far as part of his official duties.

The staging of the events eliminated any doubt about his purpose.

He was introduced in Columbus and again in Richmond by first lady Michelle Obama, and walked in to the cheers of thousands, many of them waving campaign-provided placards that read "Forward."

While the president is notably grayer than he was four years ago, he and his campaign worked to rekindle the energy and excitement among students and other voters who propelled him to the presidency in 2008.

"When people ask you what this election is about, you tell them it is still about hope. You tell them it is still about change," he said. It was a rebuttal to Romney's campaign, which has lately taken to mocking Obama's 2008 campaign mantra as "hype and blame."

If the economy is a potential ally for Romney, Obama holds other assets six months before the vote.

Unlike Romney, who struggled through a highly competitive primary season before recently wrapping up the nomination, Obama was unchallenged within his own party. As a result, his campaign's most recent filing showed cash on hand of $104 million, compared with a little over $10 million for Romney, and has worked to build organizations in several states for months.

But in the aftermath of recent Supreme Court rulings, modern presidential campaigns are more than ever waged on several fronts, and the effect of super political action committees and other outside groups able to raise donations in unlimited amounts is yet to be felt.

Already, while Romney pauses to refill his coffers, the super PAC Restore Our Future has spent more than $4 million on television advertising to introduce the Republican to the voters.

Romney had no public events Saturday after spending much of the week campaigning in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

A campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, responding to Obama's speech in Ohio, said, "While President Obama all but ignored his record over 3 1/2 years in office, the American people won't. This November, they will hold him accountable for his broken promises and ineffective leadership."

With his rhetoric, Obama belittled Romney and signaled he intends to campaign both against his challenger and the congressional Republicans who have opposed most of his signature legislation overwhelmingly, if not unanimously.

After a spirited campaign for the Republican nomination, Obama said the GOP leadership found a nominee – in Virginia he called Romney their champion – "who has promised to rubber stamp" their agenda if he gets a chance.

Romney is a "patriotic American who has raised a wonderful family," and has been a successful businessman and governor, the president said. "But I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from that experience. He sincerely believes that if CEOs and investors like him make money the rest of us will automatically do well as well."

In addition to depicting Romney as a threat to the middle class, Obama also tried to blunt the impact of what is likely to be the Republicans' best campaign issue.

"The economy is still facing headwinds and it will take sustained persistent efforts, yours and mine, for America to fully recover," the president said. He noted that jobs are being created and urged his audience not to give in to what he predicted would be negative campaign commercials designed to "exploit frustrations."

"Over and over again they'll tell you that America is down and out and they'll tell you who to blame and ask if you're better off than the worst crisis in our lifetime," he said. "The real question ... is not just about how we're doing today but how we'll be doing tomorrow."

Scarcely more than a dozen states figure to be seriously contested in the fall, including the two where Obama campaigned Saturday.

They include much of the nation's industrial belt, from Wisconsin to Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as Nevada, Colorado and, the president's campaign insists, Arizona; the latter three all have large Hispanic populations. Both campaigns also are focusing on Iowa, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire. Together, those states account for 157 electoral votes.

Barring a sudden crisis, foreign policy is expected to account for less voter interest than any presidential campaign since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since taking office, Obama has made good on his pledge to end the war in Iraq, announced a timetable to phase out the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by 2014 and given the order for a risky mission by special forces in which Osama bin Laden was killed in his hideout in Pakistan.

One recent poll showed the public trusts Obama over Romney by a margin of 53-36 on international affairs.

While the battleground states tend to be clustered geographically, the state-by-state impact of the recession and economic recovery varies.

In Ohio, for example unemployment was most recently measured at 7.6 percent, below the national average. It was higher, 9.1 percent and rising, when Obama took office, reaching 10.6 percent in the fall of 2009 before it began receding.

In Virginia, it was 5.6 percent in March, well below the national average. It was 6.6 percent in February 2009 and peaked in June of that year at 7.2.

In a measurement that shows an economy recovering, yet far from recovered, the Labor Department reported this month that 54 metropolitan areas had double-digit unemployment in March, down from 116 a year ago. By contrast, joblessness was below 7.0 percent in 109 areas, up from 62 a year earlier.

No matter the change, Romney attacks Obama's handling of the economy at every turn.

"If the last 3 1/2 years are his definition of forward, I'd have to see what backward looks like," he said late last week in Virginia.

The first lady, who accompanied the president during the day, has attended more than 50 fundraisers since his campaign filed formal candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission 13 months ago.

Below, a look at Obama's 2012 efforts:
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  • Campaign Announcement

    With a <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-VZLvVF1FQ&noredirect=1" target="_hplink">video</a> emailed and texted to supporters, President Barack Obama <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/04/barack-obama-2012-campaign_n_844221.html" target="_hplink">announced</a> he would be running for reelection on April 4, 2011. "We're doing this now because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you -- with people organizing block by block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build," the email read.

  • Fundraising

    In his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama raised a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/04/barack-obama-to-run-money_n_844435.html" target="_hplink">staggering $750 million</a>. The president is <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/04/barack-obama-to-run-money_n_844435.html" target="_hplink">promising to hit</a> the billion dollar mark this time around, which would make him the first president in U.S. history to do so. In his 2008 bid for the White House, Obama ran a famously grassroots campaign, securing a record four million individual donors. With a disenchanted base, the grassroots efforts in his 2012 campaign have been less successful; the campaign failed to meet its goal of 20,000 small donors by the end of September 2011, <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/10/obama-grassroots-challenge-fails-to-meet-goal/" target="_hplink">reported ABC</a>. Many of Obama's early supporters have become disheartened with the president, and many are in worse financial shape than they were three years ago. Losing small donors, however, still leaves Obama with the corporate backers he won over in 2008. Of his <a href="http://www.opensecrets.org/pres08/contrib.php?cid=N00009638" target="_hplink">top ten donors</a>, eight were major corporations and banks, including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. Obama has the weight of the presidency behind him this time around. "His 2012 campaign will be a bigger, slicker machine likely to dwarf that of his eventual Republican opponent," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/04/barack-obama-to-run-money_n_844435.html" target="_hplink">Reuters reported</a>. Successful fundraising can also help the Democratic Party win back seats in the House and Senate. From the Associated Press: <blockquote>Obama gave millions from his campaign war chest to Congressional candidates in 2008. Every seat in the House will be up for grabs again in 2012, as well as one-third of the seats in the Senate, and many experts say the battle for Congress -- particularly for the Senate -- could be the real fight.</blockquote> The president has held several fundraisers this fall, reaching out to key voting blocks like African Americans and progressives. In October the president's reelection campaign announced they surpassed 1 million donors since collections began in April. The campaign and Democratic National Committee reported a total of $70 million for the third quarter.

  • Approval Ratings

    President Obama's approval ratings hit a new low at the end of October. A <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/150230/Obama-Job-Approval-Average-Slides-New-Low-11th-Quarter.aspx" target="_hplink">Gallup poll</a> found Obama's approval had fallen to 41 percent, a new low and a big drop from the previous quarter rating of 46.8 percent. But despite voter frustration over high unemployment rates, <a href=" http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/24/obama-approval-rating-likability_n_979076.html." target="_hplink">Obama's likability</a> as a person has kept him afloat in the polls. Americans' approval of the president has risen and fallen over the past year: It spiked after a budget deal with Republicans was reached, after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and of course again after Osama bin Laden was killed. The numbers dipped in August during the debt ceiling debacle. Check out HuffPost Pollster's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/06/jobapproval-obama_n_726319.html" target="_hplink">interactive tool</a> tracking Obama's approval ratings through time.

  • GOP Candidates

    The current pool of candidates in the Republican primary race may be one of the best things President Obama has going for him in his re-election bid. The GOP has been hesitant to rally around any one of the contenders, and a number of high-profile Republicans decided against a run. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been a steady frontrunner, but hasn't garnered widespread excitement from members of his party. Instead Republicans urged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to make a bid for the White House, and many conservatives were hopeful Sarah Palin would join the race. (Both decided not to run.) Romney has picked up key endorsements from Christie and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. However a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/13/republican-endorsements_n_1009352.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost analysis</a> shows that the number of GOP endorsements is much lower than is usual at this point in the race, indicating the Republican party is far from a consensus. Attendees at a Republican National Committee (RNC) meeting in May found the field of candidates "uninspiring," <a href="http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/20/gop-leaders-restless-about-2012-candidates-but-ready-to-take-on-obama/" target="_hplink">CNN reported</a>. "I am not seeing lightning striking for any of the candidates at this point," said Nevada Republican Chairman Bob List at the event. "But Republicans are eager to find the right candidate to coalesce around."

  • American Jobs Act

    President Obama announced the <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/08/fact-sheet-american-jobs-act" target="_hplink">American Jobs Act </a> in September, a sweeping $447 billion bill to boost the country's sinking economy. The White House says the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/24/obama-jobs-plan_n_978956.html" target="_hplink">bill would create</a> 1.9 million new jobs -- just a fraction of the 15 million unemployed Americans. Republicans and some Democrats oppose Obama's plan to pay for the jobs bill by hiking taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans. Though many aspects of the legislation had been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/14/obama-jobs-bill-2011-republican-support_n_1011699.html" target="_hplink">previously supported</a> by Republicans in Congress, the bill was blocked in the Senate. Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/16/debbie-wasserman--schultz-failure-economy_n_1013838.html" target="_hplink">accused the Republican Party</a> of purposefully allowing the economy to struggle in order to score political points for the 2012 elections. Obama has vowed to continue to fight to pass individual pieces of the bill, beginning with a provision to protect the jobs of teachers, firefighters and police. The Senate voted down the provision in October.

  • Mobilizing The Base

    As campaign season heats up President Obama has been reaching out to the key voting blocs the helped get him elected in 2008, such as African Americans and liberals. In September the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/25/obama-to-congressional-bl_n_979708.html" target="_hplink">president addressed</a> the Congressional Black Caucus at an annual awards dinner and called on blacks to "put on your marching shoes" to follow him into battle. "I need your help," he said. "Shake it off. Stop complainin'. Stop grumblin'. Stop cryin'. We are going to press on. We have work to do." Though Obama was speaking about the economy and his jobs bill, the undercurrent of the speech was that without African American support he might not secure a second term. Black leaders, as well as progressives generally, have been increasingly critical of Obama for giving away too much in talks with Republicans, and not doing enough to fight black unemployment, which is nearly double the national average, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/25/obama-to-congressional-bl_n_979708.html" target="_hplink">the <em>Associated Press</em> reports</a>. Obama also took a trip to the West Coast to speak to progressive Democrats, who have been growing disenchanted with the president. Hoping to reinvigorate the liberal voting bloc, Obama said during fundraisers up and down the West Coast that the GOP vision of government would "cripple America." The president's rhetoric has shifted from a spirit of compromise, to attacks on conservatives, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/25/obama-gop-cripple-america_n_980219.html" target="_hplink">reports the <em>Associated Press</em></a>.

  • First Term Accomplishments

    A run-down of the president's accomplishments and how the most controversial among them were received. <strong>Health Care Reform:</strong> The Affordable Care Act is arguably Obama's most contentious legislative accomplishment. Most Democrats praise the law for aiming to provide all Americans with access to affordable health care, while the Republican party wishes to repeal the law, saying it ups taxes and government spending, while increasing government control over health care. Some question the constitutionality of an individual mandate. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/01/supreme-court-health-care-law_n_990289.html" target="_hplink">The Supreme Court </a> will be the judge of that. The president faced the most sustained criticism from his base during the health care debate, as he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/24/leaderless-senate-pushes_n_332844.html" target="_hplink">negotiated away</a> and belittled the public insurance option, and made <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/13/internal-memo-confirms-bi_n_258285.html" target="_hplink">back-room deals</a> with major industry players. <strong>Economic Recovery:</strong> Obama's $789 billion <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/11/stimulus-deal-obama-team_n_165912.html" target="_hplink">economic stimulus package</a> has faced scrutiny from Republicans since passing Congress with little Republican support. However, supporters credit the legislation -- one of the largest in history -- with pulling the economy back from the brink after the 2008 financial collapse and preventing a second Great Depression. Republicans criticized the plan for relying too heavily on spending rather than tax cuts, though a third of the package consisted of the latter. As early as February 2009, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/09/is-stimulus-too-small_n_165076.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost explained </a>why the stimulus was too small and would fall short of its goal. <strong>Withdrawing from Iraq:</strong> Fulfilling a campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/21/obama-iraq-troop-withdrawal_n_1024108.html" target="_hplink">Obama announced Oct. 21</a> that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. <strong>DADT Repeal:</strong> Obama repealed the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/20/barack-obama-dont-ask-dont-tell-repeal-statement_n_971662.html" target="_hplink">Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy</a> that forbid gay men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military, a law he called "discriminatory." The repeal was a historic moment for the gay rights movement. Some Republican candidates have promised to reinstate the policy. <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/us/politics/30ledbetter-web.html" target="_hplink">Fair Pay Act:</a> The first bill Obama signed into law is aimed at achieving equal pay for women. <strong>Stem Cell Research:</strong> Obama overturned the Bush-era ban on funding embryonic stem cell research, offering federal support for scientists researching cures for disease. <strong>New START treaty:</strong> Obama signed a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/03/jon-kyls-decadelong-obses_n_791738.html" target="_hplink">bilateral treaty </a>between the U.S. and Russia that aims to cut the number of nuclear weapons around the world in half. <a href="http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2010/12/president-obama-signs-child-nutrition-act/21903/" target="_hplink"><strong>Child Nutrition Act:</strong></a> Obama signed into law a bill to combat childhood obesity and promote child nutrition in schools. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/04/obama-sign-food-safety-bill_n_804053.html" target="_hplink"><strong>Food Safety Act:</strong></a> The food safety act to help prevent deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness was the first major overhaul of America's food safety system since the 1930s. <strong>Wall Street Reform:</strong> Obama's financial industry reform bill left the major banks in tact, but promised to create a mechanism whereby failing institutions would be seized and unwound by federal regulators. That element of the law has yet to be tested. The signature achievement of the bill was the creation of the Consumer Financial Product Bureau, an agency crafted by consumer advocate and now-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, which was fought energetically by Wall Street, the GOP and powerful Democrats. <strong>Supreme Court Justices:</strong> Obama appointed two justices to the United States Supreme Court: Justice Sonya Sotomayor in 2009, the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court, and Justice Elena Kagan in 2010.

  • Killing Osama bin Laden And Ending The War On Terror

    In May 2011 President Obama announced that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/01/osama-bin-laden-dead-killed_n_856091.html" target="_hplink">Osama Bin Laden had been killed</a> by a U.S. operation launched in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The president said U.S. intelligence operatives received a tip of bin Laden's hideout and took action. "Justice has been done," Obama said <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNYmK19-d0U" target="_hplink">from the White House</a>. Upon taking office Obama distanced himself from the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/10/obamas-war-on-terror-awlaki_n_1004161.html" target="_hplink">"War on Terror"</a> he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush. He ordered an end to the phrase, instead calling it a "Global Contingency Operation." Despite the name change, the assault on civil liberties that was central to Bush's "War on Terror" continues under President Obama's "operation." He pledged to bring the Iraq war to an end, and has withdrawn roughly 120,000 troops since taking office. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/21/obama-iraq-troop-withdrawal_n_1024108.html" target="_hplink">Obama announced</a> Oct. 21 that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year, fulfilling a long-held campaign promise.

  • Budget Fights With Republicans

    The 2009 stimulus negotiations, in which Republicans got several hundred billion dollars worth of tax cuts without agreeing to vote for the bill, were a sign of things to come. Negotiations over the 2011 budget reached a climax in April, with a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/14/budget-deal-passes-house-_n_849334.html" target="_hplink">showdown</a> between Republicans and Democrats that threatened to shut down the federal government if the two parties could not reach a deal. At the eleventh hour, Congress pushed through a deal that was hailed as a <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0411/52864.html" target="_hplink">victory for Republicans</a>, because of the spending cuts Democrats agreed to. Democrats strongly opposed any <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/09/budget-battle-gop-wins-round-one_n_847101.html" target="_hplink">cuts to spending</a>. Republicans initially asked for $61 billion in cuts. Democrats later refused to go over $33 billion. The deal settled on $38.5 billion in cuts. Republicans had also tried to force social issues as part of the deal, hoping to defund Planned Parenthood and to stop government regulations on greenhouse gases, without success. However these and deeper cuts to spending are likely to be issues in the next budget fight. Months later Democrats and Republicans again went head to head over the <a href="http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/06/whats-happening-debt-ceiling-explained" target="_hplink">raising the debt ceiling</a>. The U.S. government reached its borrowing limit - $14.3 trillion - and risked defaulting on payments if they didn't if the debt limit wasn't raised. Republicans refused to raise the limit without drastic cuts, which Democrats chastised political grandstanding that cause the country to default. Again a last-minute deal was struck in which Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling enough to keep borrowing through 2013 in exchange for spending cuts. A super-committee was created to come up with a plan to trim the federal budget by an additional $2.4 trillion. In September the U.S. narrowly averted a government shutdown once more over <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20112238-503544.html" target="_hplink">negotiations on a spending bill</a>. Republicans wanted to offset funding for disaster relief with cuts; Democrats refused. In the end Republicans caved on the cuts, but got Democrats to agree to give less cash to FEMA than they had wanted. The budget fight isn't over yet. In November Congress will have to figure out the rest of the 2012 federal budget. At that point the super committee created to save 1.2 trillion from the budget will reveal its plan.

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