President Barack Obama plunged into his campaign for a new term and tore into rival Mitt Romney as a willing and eager “rubber stamp” for conservative Republicans in Congress who want to cut taxes for the rich.
Six months before Election Day, the polls point to a close race between Mr Obama and Mr Romney, with the economy the overriding issue as the US struggles to recover from the worst recession since the 1930s.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 8.1% 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.
Mr 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 Mr 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.
Mr 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 supporters at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Aides insisted it was his first full-fledged political rally of the election year.
Mr Romney “doesn’t seem to understand that maximising 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,” Mr Obama said of his multimillionaire opponent.
While Mr Romney has yet to flesh out a detailed economic program, he and Republicans in Congress want to extend all the tax cuts enacted during President George W. Bush’s administration that are due to expire at year’s end.
Mr 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.
Mr 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.
Mr Obama has attended numerous fundraisers this election year, but over the escalating protests of Republicans, the White House has categorised all of his other appearances so far as part of his official presidential duties.
The staging of the events eliminated any doubt about his purpose. Official campaign rallies can free Mr Obama up to take more direct aim at Mr Romney.
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 greyer 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 Mr Romney’s campaign, which has lately taken to mocking Mr Obama’s 2008 campaign mantra as “hype and blame”.