The Obama White House moved fully into reelection mode this week, leaving aside any pretense of being above the fray and beginning an unabashed political effort to lay the groundwork for what polls suggest could be eight difficult months of campaigning ahead.
Thursday seemed to mark a significant shift in approach and intensity, with overtly political speeches by President Obama and Vice President Biden and the release of a 17-minute documentary-style testimonial celebrating what the administration considers its most significant achievements.
The documentary, narrated by Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, is called “The Road We’ve Traveled,” but it has everything to do with what lies ahead.
Although it was produced weeks ago, the documentary’s release comes amid a spate of recent bad news for the president, including some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, news that his fundraising efforts have been less robust than expected and some political fallout from rising gasoline prices.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a Washington Post-ABC News poll cited disapproval over the president’s handling of the economy. Obama will hold five fundraisers on Friday: two in Chicago and three in Atlanta.
Senior White House advisers profess not to be concerned about the ratings slump, dismissing the results as not reflective of the nation’s true mood about the president, who has recently overseen an upturn in job creation.
Still, the campaign hopes the video will inject some energy — along with some campaign cash — into the president’s reelection effort, as his Republican rivals continue to slog through a grueling primary season. The campaign said that it planned to hold 300 screenings of the video nationwide on Thursday night, and many them were linked to phone-bank operations or new office openings.
Until now, the Obama campaign had been content to parry GOP attacks from the sidelines, through conference calls with reporters, videos on YouTube and the occasional television advertisement in markets where Republicans were holding primary contests.
White House aides declined to declare any of Obama’s or Biden’s appearances campaign events, other than fundraisers at private venues.
That changed Thursday in the key swing state of Ohio, where Biden showed up before a hall of unionized auto workers in Toledo. His appearance, the first of four campaign speeches that aides said will “define the general election,” injected grit where the Hollywood-infused documentary had added gloss.
Mentioning the Republican candidates by name, Biden drew the sharpest contrast yet between them and the Obama administration on the economy.
“Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — these guys have a fundamentally different economic philosophy than we do,” Biden said. “Our philosophy is one that values the workers in the success of a business. . . . We are for a fair shot and a fair shake. They’re about no rules, no risks and no accountability.”
Biden’s speech was another clear indicator that Democrats intend to fiercely contest Ohio, which is a must-win for Republicans. The address came just days after Obama decided to make a college basketball game in Dayton, his first public event with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Obama’s decision, over the objections of many Republicans, to extend a government hand to the auto industry, Biden added, showed that “he made the tough call and the verdict is in. President Obama was right and they were dead wrong.”
The president himself piled on during remarks at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, where he delivered his third public speech in as many weeks on his energy policies.
Although it was billed as an official White House event, Obama’s appearance took on the feeling of a campaign rally. Hundreds of enthusiastic students filled the college’s gymnasium and chanted “Four more years!”
Obama delighted them by blasting his Republican critics for their resistance to investing in alternative energy sources, comparing their stance to the beliefs of those who thought that Christopher Columbus would sail off the edge of the world.
The president touted his push for green energy growth — including wind and solar power, electric cars, and biofuels — as a way to help wean the nation from a dependence on foreign oil and someday insulate American consumers from spikes in gas prices.
He mocked the Republican candidates for not embracing his ideas.
“If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they probably must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. They would not believe that the world was round,” Obama said.
The GOP fought back through a conference call, organized by the Republican National Committee, with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee this fall.
Jindal criticized Obama’s proposal to eliminate $4 billion in government subsidies for oil and natural gas companies.
“If you increase taxes on a commodity or good, you’re going to raise prices,” he told reporters. “To me, it’s pretty basic Economics 101. I don’t know if the president took that class at Columbia or not.”
But Team Obama was nonplussed. After his remarks at the college, the president joined Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who is facing a primary challenge in his own reelection bid, for a takeout lunch at the Texas Ribs & BBQ restaurant in Clinton.
Waiting for his order of baby-back ribs, Obama led Cardin to shake hands with surprised diners. The president posed for pictures, signed autographs and thanked a man who told Obama he had flown him aboard a military aircraft during his campaign for the White House four years ago.