President Obama formally launched his reelection campaign here Saturday with some old favorites, from “fired up, ready to go” to a closing bow to “hope and change.” But almost everything else about the day spoke to the differences between his first and second runs for the president.

The president used his rallies to try to begin to disqualify Mitt Romney. Yet the coming election is still more about him than his probable Republican rival. Obama’s biggest opponent may be an economy that is still struggling to gain the kind of momentum that will convince voters that the recession is truly over.

It was perhaps a coincidence in timing that the president’s opening events came just a day after a tepid employment report that showed only modest private-sector job creation. The unemployment rate ticked down a tenth of a percentage point, but only because the labor force shrank as discouraged Americans gave up looking for work.

The general election gets underway against that backdrop, neither so gloomy as to make it all but certain that the president will be defeated nor good enough to give Democrats real confidence that the president’s reelection is all but assured. For the next six months, Obama and Romney are both hostages to the economic statistics even as they slug it out on the campaign trail.

Obama showed he is ready for the fight. His campaign skills have lost little in the four years since iconic rallies became the trademark of his candidacy. Introduced by first lady Michelle Obama, he walked onto a runway in the Schottenstein Center on the campus of Ohio State University, paused, smiled, waved and smiled again.

After a few more strides, he hugged and kissed his wife, stepped to the microphone — and then proceeded to try to shred Romney and the Republicans. His rival, Obama said, is a patriotic American with a fine family and experience in the private sector and with running a state.

But Romney “has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences,” the president said. “He sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money, the rest of us will automatically prosper as well.”

He pulled from Romney’s statements on the campaign trail and the agenda of a congressional wing of the Republican Party that he portrayed as backward-looking and harmful to the country’s future. He suggested that Romney is a man out of touch with the lives and aspirations of working Americans and in league with the wealthiest in society.

“I don’t know how many times you try to explain it,” he said, referring to a Romney comment the Democrats love to quote. “Corporations aren’t people. People are people.”

Drawing contrasts

Though the president has been campaigning for months, Obama’s advisers billed Saturday’s rallies in the battleground states of Ohio and Virginia as an opportunity to draw distinctions with Romney and the Republicans in ways he had not done previously.

The contrasts he drew were more sharply etched and at times hard-edged. The litany was long. Tax cuts. Health care. Education. Financial regulation. Energy. Climate change. Women’s rights. Setting a timetable for ending the war in Afghanistan.

“We can’t afford to spend the next four years going backward,” he said. “. . . We just cannot turn back now.”

Those issues will be at the center of the debate between the president and the former Massachusetts governor. But for many voters, the first question they will try to answer is likely to be whether the country truly is going forward fast enough to satisfy them.

If their conclusion is no, the second is whether they think the president has the vision and the strength of leadership to get the country where they want it to go. He will be measured against that standard as much as against comparisons with Romney.

The president showed he has plenty of material to make the case against Romney and the Republicans, as he tries to avoid allowing the election to become a pure referendum on his record. His opening argument was also long on language of a rosy future that he said Americans could look to, but only if they reject what Romney is offering.

Romney’s advisers believe that kind of rhetoric will go only so far. They will try to push the voters back with something the former governor said on the night he won five primaries and essentially ended the Republican race. “The last few years have been the best Barack Obama can do,” he said. “But it’s not the best America can do.”

Whatever conclusions voters have drawn about his record, Obama is not a deeply disliked president. In fact, he is judged as considerably more likable a politician than his rival. Romney advisers already have conceded that if the election turns on likability, their man is in trouble. That is why Romney has turned to a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger characterization of the Obama record. He is playing on a sentiment that exists, and the president will have to rebut it.

The politics of now?

Obama’s case against Romney was well framed and argued with passion. What was missing — and has been in the president’s message — is something that looks to this moment. He talked about going back and going forward but did not talk so much about now. He did not explain to voters just where he believes the economy is right now, why it has not rebounded as quickly as anyone hoped, what the real obstacles to more rapid growth are and what exactly he plans to do to fix things.

Obama’s rally in Columbus included trademark elements of his campaign style, with an emphasis on grass-roots organizing, pushing the envelope on technology and efforts to arouse the passions of his followers. The crowd of 14,000 did not fill the 18,000-seat arena, but it eclipsed anything Republican candidates have shown this year.

Republicans noted the empty seats and suggested it showed that the Obama coalition is less enthusiastic about this campaign than the last one. White House senior adviser David Plouffe said the campaign is happy to have a debate about crowd size with Romney. A top campaign adviser said he is confident that the enthusiasm gap no longer tilts significantly to the advantage of the Republicans.

There is little likelihood that Obama can truly rekindle what he had in 2008, but that may not be necessary.

What he needs is an economy on the mend and a belief among the voters that he has a second-term agenda and the leadership to take care of unfinished business.

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to