Obama says 'it's still about hope' as campaign begins

Hope and change powered Barack Obama to the White House four years ago, but can he play the same gambit twice?

Conventional wisdom says no, given the fact that the US president is the steward of America's demoralized economic state, but Obama, setting off on a six-month trek to a new presidential election, begs to differ.

"If people ask you what this campaign is about, you tell them it's still about hope," Obama on Saturday told crowds chanting "four more years" in battleground states Ohio and Virginia.

"I still believe ... I still believe we are not as divided as our politics suggest," Obama said, in an echo of the 2004 Democratic convention speech which shot the then unknown Illinois lawmaker to prominence.

"I still believe we have more in common than the pundits tell us. I still believe in you, and I'm asking you to keep believing in me."

Obama, at the first official rallies of his bid for the second term that all presidents crave, injected some badly needed poetry and excitement back into his brand after three prosaic, slogging years of governing.

The president showed again Saturday he can still move core supporters, who left an arena here buzzing.

Carolyn Johnson -- who traveled to the rally in Virginia's state capital Richmond from Warsaw, 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the east -- said she was inspired by Obama's pep talk.

"You have to have hope and you have to look for change because of the way things are going," she said, in a reference to the current tough economic times.

The president seems bent on renewing the passion of 2008 in parts of his new stump speech, though other passages seemed to reflect an attempt by his campaign to throw out red meat to Democratic interest groups to see what works.

Before he bounded on stage, his campaign showed a video featuring Edith Childs, the elderly woman who inspired a tired Obama on a tough day in South Carolina four years ago and coined his chant "Fired, Up, Ready to Go!"

Both rallies went ahead Saturday under banners reading "Ready to Go".

And Obama tried to duplicate the simple clarity of his previous campaign theme "Hope" with his new rallying cry "Forward."

His foes however dispute the idea that his campaign is powered by a positive stream of hope.

In fact, many accuse the president of deliberately dividing Americans with crusades on issues like women's health for naked political gain.

And the Obama camp set the table for his debut swing with scorched earth negative campaign ads, questioning millionaire Romney over his Swiss bank account and asking whether he would have had the moxie to kill Osama bin Laden.

Obama's hopeful rhetoric also masked a sharp critique of Romney and Republicans.

"Over and over again, they will tell you that America is down and out, and they'll tell you who to blame," he said.

There are also questions whether Americans are still receptive to Obama's message of hope, after grim years of painful recovery from the deepest recession in decades and with unemployment nationwide at 8.1 percent.

Some 61 percent of those asked in a recent poll by CBS and the New York Times said they believed their country was on the wrong track.

Though Obama's job rating has been fairly robust, just below the 50 percent threshold presidents see as boosting their re-election hopes, 47 percent in a RealClearPolitics poll average still say they disapprove of the president.

Some analysts believe that Obama's arguments on framing a "fair shot" for everyone in a more equitable economy only work if people feel a sense of imminent personal crisis is over.

Interestingly, Obama chose to stage his first official rallies in two states where the state unemployment rate is below the national average: the jobless rate was 7.5 percent in Ohio and 5.6 percent in Virginia in March.

Should Obama win both states, in which he currently leads Romney in latest polls, the electoral map sets up in such a way that he would be almost certain to retain the White House.

Republicans appear to scent the danger, and are desperate to make the election a referendum on what they see as a poor economic record.

"Four years ago President Obama set the goal posts with the question of 'will this country be better off four years from now?'" said Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman.

"Even though Obama would like us to forget he's been president the past three years, Americans aren't satisfied with the Obama policies that have resulted in 12.5 million Americans unemployed, 5.5 million mortgages in foreclosure or delinquent, and a record $5 trillion added to the debt.

"Barack Obama is right, Americans aren't satisfied and that's why we can't afford a second term."

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