Speaking to skeptical voters nationwide from the pivotal battleground of Ohio, President Barack Obama defiantly defended his record on the economy Thursday and painted Mitt Romney as the standard-bearer for those who would bring back George W. Bush's policies.
"I want to speak to everybody who is watching who may not be a supporter, may be undecided, or thinking about voting the other way," Obama said. "If you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney."
That line drew a chorus of boos from a rowdy crowd of about 1,500 people assembled to hear Obama try to reframe what some Democrats have described as his wobbly election message.
Romney, speaking to supporters at an aluminum plant in Cincinnati moments before Obama's remarks, offered his own version of the choice voters face on Nov. 6.
"If you think things are going swimmingly, if you think the president's right when he said the private sector is doing fine, well, then he's the guy to vote for," he said.
Obama opened his remarks with a direct reference to his much-mocked claim last Friday that the "private sector is doing fine" compared to cash-strapped state and local governments. Republicans including Mitt Romney have seized on that comment to suggest the president is out of touch.
"So, Ohio, over the next five months, this election will take many twists and many turns, polls will go up and polls will go down, there will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that keep both campaigns busy and give the press something to write about," he said.
"You may have heard I recently made my own unique contribution to that process. It wasn't the first time. It won't be the last," the president said in the verbal equivalent of a dismissive shrug.
"Of course the economy isn't where it needs to be. Of course we have a lot more work to do. Everybody knows that," Obama said from behind a lectern emblazoned with his campaign slogan, "Forward," in front of eight American flags.
Aides had suggested the president's 53-minute speech from Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland would serve to recast the debate between him and Romney on the sour economy, the top issue on voters' minds. The remarks at times seemed like a blend of the soaring oratory that carried the Democrat to his historic victory in 2008 along with the ponderous, laundry-list politics of unsuccessful "State of the Union" addresses.Obama worked to cast Nov. 6 as "a choice between two fundamentally different visions" about the best path out of the rubble left by the 2007-2008 global economic meltdown—not a referendum on an embattled incumbent at a time of 8.2 percent unemployment.
"The economic vision of Mr. Romney and his allies in Congress was tested just a few years ago," Obama said. "We tried this. Their policies did not grow the economy. They did not grow the middle class. They did not reduce our debt."
"Why would we think that they would work better this time?" said the president, who has used variations on that theme in scores of campaign events all over the country over the past few months.
"We can't afford to jeopardize our future by repeating the mistakes of the past. Not now. Not when there's so much at stake," he said.
In a preemptive rhetorical strike, Romney anticipated Obama's words: "He's going to be a person of eloquence as he describes his plans for making the economy better," Romney said. "But don't forget, he's been president for three and a half years. And talk is cheap. Action speaks very loud."
But the president emphasized the timeline of events. "Our economy started growing again six months after I took office and it has continued to grow for the last three years," Obama said.
The president also pleaded for patience—"not only are we digging out of a hole that is 9 million jobs deep, we're digging out from an entire decade"—and he blamed Republicans in Congress for stalling his efforts to revive the economy.
"What's holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take," he said. "And this election is your chance to break that stalemate."
"If they win the election, their agenda will be simple and straightforward; they have spelled it out. They promise to roll back regulations on banks and polluters, on insurance companies and oil companies. They'll roll back regulations designed to protect consumers and workers while cutting taxes on the very wealthy," Obama said.
The president said he would boost investments in education, scientific research and refurbishing the country's crumbling infrastructure.
Before Obama left Washington, the Department of Labor released official data showing that weekly unemployment benefit applications rose 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000—the latest sign of anemic hiring and sluggish growth.
And the Gallup polling organization released a survey showing that more than two-thirds of Americans—including half of Republicans—still pin the country's economic ills on former President Bush.
What one might call the blame gap has narrowed considerably: When Gallup first asked Americans in July 2009 whom they faulted for the poor economy, 80 percent laid a great deal or a moderate amount of blame on Bush, and only 32 percent held Obama responsible.
The current numbers show 68 percent of the public blames the former president while 52 percent say Obama deserves the criticism. (The numbers total more than 100 percent because the question was not "which one do you blame more," but how much blame each president deserves individually.)
And on Wednesday, an ABC News/ Washington Post poll showed that only 38 percent of independent swing voters viewed Obama's economic plans favorably, with a majority (54 percent) disapproving. But independent voters judge Romney's economic ideas just as harshly: 47 percent gave his economic approach an unfavorable rating, with just 35 percent finding it favorable.
The Democratic president has crisscrossed the country in recent months pleading for patience from voters still struggling in the anemic recovery and grappling with a stubbornly high unemployment rate above 8 percent. In his speeches, Obama makes a point of charging Bush and Republicans in general with the 2007-2008 meltdown and warns that Mitt Romney's economic program resembles the Bush approach "on steroids."
Among independents, who often play a role in deciding elections, 51 percent assign Obama a great deal or a moderate amount of blame, while 47 percent say he deserves not much or no blame at all. Meanwhile, 67 percent of independents say Bush bears a great deal or a moderate amount of the fault. Only 32 percent exonerate him in whole or in part.
After the speech, Obama headed to New York to make a Flag Day pilgrimage to ground zero and attend a pair of fundraisers aimed at scooping up $4.5 million for his campaign. One of the events will be hosted by actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Fifty guests there are due to pay $40,000 each.
"Running for president is an expensive proposition," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.