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."