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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. President Barack Obama says the country has come too far in the last four years to change course now. He kicked off his re-election campaign yesterday with a pair of high-profile rallies in two pivotal states, Ohio and Virginia. Mr. Obama said, yes, he understands that the economic recovery still has a long way to go, but he argues his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, would move the country backward, not forward. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The president's first official re-election rallies had some of the trappings of his 2008 campaign: huge crowds, stirring music, even the old standby chant of Fired Up, Ready to Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama said this campaign is still about hope and change, though he acknowledged many hopes were dashed by the severe recession that cost three million jobs in the six months before he took office.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It was tough. But I tell you what, Ohio. The American people are tougher.

HORSLEY: The president stressed the four million jobs private employers have added in the last two years. Voters got another reminder, though, of the uneven pace of that recovery with a weaker-than-expected jobs report on Friday.

OBAMA: Are we satisfied?

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD RESPONDING, NO)

OBAMA: Of course not. Too many of our friends and family are still out there looking for work.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama is eager to frame the election not as a referendum on the last four years, but rather a choice between his agenda and the Republicans. He said the important question is not whether you're better off now than before the economic crisis hit, but whose policies will make you and the country better off in the future. He argued that Republican rival Mitt Romney has drawn the wrong lesson from his own successful business career. Outsourcing jobs or busting unions might help an individual company's bottom line, Mr. Obama said, but it's not the right course for average Americans or the U.S. economy.

OBAMA: The true measure of our prosperity is more than just a running tally of every balance sheet and quarterly profit report. I don't care how many ways you try to explain it. Corporations aren't people. People are people.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama argued that Romney would rubber-stamp the agenda of congressional Republicans, with big tax cuts for the wealthy, big cuts in spending on programs for the middle class and fewer regulations on Wall Street and insurance companies. He said that's the same agenda Republicans pursued before the financial crisis.

OBAMA: They're just hoping you won't remember what happened the last time we tried it their way. Virginia, I'm here to say that we were there. We remember. And we're not going back. We're moving this country forward.

HORSLEY: Supporters in the crowd waved blue placards that read Forward, and red signs that said, Not Back.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

HORSLEY: Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul issued a statement saying no matter how many lofty campaign speeches President Obama gives, the fact remains that American families are struggling on his watch. Both sides are already campaigning hard in battleground states. Pete Snyder heads a Republican organizing effort in Virginia.

PETE SNYDER: We are not leaving any ounce, any yard of this football field to Barack Obama and to the Democrats this year. Look, in 2008, we got our clocks cleaned on the ground. You know it. We know it. We're never going to let that happen again.

HORSLEY: One function of the president's rallies yesterday was to sign up and motivate his own volunteers. Supporters were urged to register voters and campaign door-to-door between now and November. First lady Michelle Obama stressing that the race is likely to be decided by a relative handful of votes.

MICHELLE OBAMA: With every single call you make, every single conversation, I want you to remember that this could be the one, right? This could be the one that makes the difference.

HORSLEY: The preliminaries are over. The general election campaign is underway. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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