President Obama hit the campaign trail for the first time as a 2012 presidential candidate Thursday, blasting Republicans as looking to create “a nation of potholes” and reeling off a series of actions that he argued have improved the country under his leadership.

The president officially launched his campaign with an e-mail to supporters last week and a video in which Obama himself did not appear. Instead, he chose to start his reelection bid by returning to his adoptive home town for a series of fundraisers.

He wooed big-money backers at two small dinners Thursday before addressing more than 1,000 mostly young supporters along Lake Michigan. The late-evening gathering carried echoes of the energetic rallies of Obama’s 2008 run, particularly when the president concluded his speech and the crowd began to chant, “Yes We Can,” his campaign slogan from 2008.

Obama steered away from the phrase “I’m running for reelection” and never attacked any potential GOP opponents by name. But he called himself a candidate and said his Wednesday speech about the two parties’ visions for reducing the federal deficit illustrated an ideological gulf that would define the 2012 race.

He pointed to last year’s enactment of a health care law and “putting two women on the Supreme Court, including the first Latina” as signal accomplishments of his administration, and he contrasted that with dire warnings about what congressional Republicans would do without him in the White House to block their plans.

“Under their vision, we can’t invest in roads and bridges and broadband and high-speed rail. We would be a nation of potholes, and our airports would be worse than places that we thought, that we used to call the Third World,” Obama said. He also suggested that the GOP’s budget plans would force reduced spending on a number of his priorities.

Obama told his supporters that they would need to start building the campaign over the next nine months while Obama focused on his “day job.”

“What is going to be valuable over the next six months and over the next 18 months is we are going to be able to present a very clear option to the American people,” Obama said ”We can get our fiscal house in order, but we can do it in a way that is consistent with our values and who we are as a people. Or we can decide to shrink our vision of what America is.

He added, “And I don’t believe in shrinking America. That’s not who we are.”

Obama’s three events were expected to raise more than $2 million for his reelection effort. At the same time, they served as a homecoming for the president, allowing him to launch his 2012 campaign in the city where he started his professional life and later his political career.

“As I look across the room, it’s a record of my adult life and the people who helped me to become the man I am,” Obama said to applause at the N9NE steakhouse, where more than 100 major donors had paid $5,000 apiece to see him.

The room was full of longtime supporters, friends and aides, including his former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who will be sworn in as Chicago’s new mayor next month.

“This is his home and this is really where his career really unfolded in public life, and this is where our campaign took root,” said longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod in an interview. “So it’s absolutely fitting that what will be his final campaign should begin here in earnest as well. These events are part of the foundation-laying, and it feels right that they should start here.”