President Obama Officially Kicks Off Campaign

President Obama held a pair of campaign rallies today, his first big public events of the 2012 election. He targeted two key battleground states: Ohio and Virginia. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz to talk about the events.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Here at home, President Obama is out on the campaign trail today. He's holding large-scale rallies on college campuses in Ohio and Virginia. He told the crowds he still believes in hope and change, even if it takes longer than what some expected four years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and we've been through too much to turn back now.

RAZ: NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins us now. Scott, today's events, they're billed as the president's first official campaign rallies. How different are they from the speeches that he normally gives when he's not officially campaigning?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, the atmospherics are a little bit different, Guy. The music's a little louder. The crowd is a little more boisterous than a typical presidential event. And certainly, the president was more pointed today in drawing distinctions between his own agenda and that of his Republican rival Mitt Romney. He said that Romney would be a rubber stamp for the kinds of policies that Republicans in Congress have been pushing, policies, Mr. Obama says, would take the country back.

And as you heard there, he said we've come too far to do that. The crowd here was given blue placards that said Obama-Biden on one side and forward on the other.

RAZ: Hmm. Scott, no accident, I suppose, that the president is starting out in Ohio and Virginia?

HORSLEY: No. These are expected to be two of the most hotly contested states in November. That's a typical role for Ohio, of course. It's somewhat new for Virginia. But both parties are putting a lot of resources into these two states. We expect a very hard-fought campaign, both in Ohio and Virginia. And one function of rallies like this is that they serve as recruiting opportunities.

All during the warm-up in Ohio, for example, the volunteers were urging people in the crowd to sign up, send a text message, join their neighborhood campaign team. And what the Obama team hopes is that these will be the people who will then volunteer to sign up new voters, to staff phone banks, to go door-to-door. These folks will be the infantry in the ground game that we expect to come.

RAZ: Scott, just out of curiosity, I mean, he would draw huge crowds four years ago. Were there huge crowds today?

HORSLEY: There were about 14,000 people at the arena in Columbus, Ohio, which is, you know, a good crowd by any estimation for May of a presidential year. But certainly, there were still empty seats, and they didn't have to turn anyone away as they sometimes did in 2008.

RAZ: Now, these rallies are coming on the heels of a disappointing jobs report. The economy, of course, will be or is expected to be the number one issue in the campaign. Did the president address that at all today?

HORSLEY: He didn't talk specifically about yesterday's jobs numbers when the Labor Department said we added just 115,000 jobs in April. But he did talk about the large number of people who are still out of work, even though private employers have added some four million jobs over the last couple of years. He said he knows that's going to be a weapon for the Republicans. He said the GOP will try to use that frustration among those who are out of work and those who know people who are out of work to Mitt Romney's political advantage. But he said the real question is not are you better-off today, it's how well-off will you be tomorrow, either with his vision or with Governor Romney's.

He used the word choice a lot in the rallies today, and that's something that the Obama campaign will be stressing. They want to position this not as just a referendum on the last four years or on the Obama administration but a choice between two very different agendas for the country.

RAZ: That's NPR's Scott Horsley traveling with the president. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Guy.

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