Obama looks to capitalize on mixed caucus results in Iowa

President Obama is expected to deliver a wide-sweeping economic message--with a middle class focus--in swing-state Ohio on Wednesday in what some are calling a re-election year kick-off.

Looking to capitalize on the mixed results from the Iowa caucuses, which failed to leave Mitt Romney as the sole front-runner for the Republican nomination, Obama will aim to draw stark contrasts between himself and the GOP field. 

The trip to Shaker Heights, a middle-class Cleveland suburb, provides Obama with an opportunity to rejuvenate his base in a swing state that will be critical to his hopes for a second term. It also serves as a reemergence for Obama on to the national scene after a 10-day Christmas trip to Hawaii that was delayed by the fight over extending the payroll tax cut. 

Obama's first domestic trip of 2012, veteran Democratic consultant Jerry Austin said, foreshadows what the rest of the year might look like: “He’ll be in Ohio enough to be able to register to vote,” Austin quipped.

“It's not a surprise that he would be making his first trip to the number one battleground state and the number one area when he should have his best support.” 

On Tuesday, White House aides—who refused to label the three-hour trip as a campaign stop -- were mum about the details of the speech.

Speaking in broad strokes, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama would be “echoing a number of themes,” he has discussed in recent months. Along with mentions of job growth and other ways to jump start the economy, the address – set to take place at a local high school - would include how to protect the middle class, expand it and how to “make the middle class more accessible to those who aspire to it,” Carney said.

“That’s his number one focus,” the White House spokesman said. “going back to Iowa four years ago, that was his number-one focus then -- even predating the economic crisis that led to the worst recession since the Great Depression.”

“This is a theme that has dominated his time on the national stage, and it will continue throughout his presidency, because as he said on numerous occasions, he will not rest until he knows that every American who's looking for a job can find a job,” the White House spokesman added.

While Carney said Obama has a “consuming day job” and would begin to hit the campaign train later this year, Republicans were quick to hammer the president for the trip-- his 16th visit to the battleground state since taking office.

Kirsten Kukowski, a spokesperson at the Republican National Committee said Obama’s visit comes as he is “underwater” in the state’s polls.  A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed that 55 percent of Ohioans disapprove of Obama’s job performance. 

“With all 88 Ohio counties rejecting ObamaCare this fall, high unemployment and record debt that his policies have made worse, the only option President Obama has is doubling down on the same failed promises he’s relied on for the past three years,” Kukowski said. “The president has been in campaign mode for some time but now that it’s 2012, everything Obama does is with the reelection as the top priority.”

Even as White House aides deny that Wednesday’s trip is a campaign stop, one thing is certain: the Buckeye state is one Obama wants to win.

In a video released last week by the Obama team, campaign manager Jim Messina used the state as part of the “five pathways” Obama can travel to win re-election.

“We’ve probably done more work on the ground in Ohio in 2011 than any other state in the country,” Messina said, adding “Our goal is to win Ohio.”

To win the state Obama has to appeal to the Cleveland area, rich in Democratic voters who are sympathetic to labor unions and frustrated with the state of the economy, observers say.

“It’s an area of Ohio that was part of the industrial heartland and has had very tough times and it’s a group he needs to mobilize,” said Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University.  “The people there are not very optimistic that any politician is going to do anything to help them and he’s got quite a selling job to do.

Beck said Obama can mobilize them by being an economic populist.

“I think that will draw a responsive chord,” he said.

Obama tried to draw a similar chord on Tuesday evening, appearing over a live-streaming video while speaking Iowa caucus-goers and supporters.

"...We knew even then that the middle class had been taking it for a long time--folks who had been trying to get into the middle class had found out that the ladders that allowed for upward mobility had started to disintegrate for a lot of people," Obama said, adding that every American deserves a "fair shot."

But in Ohio, the support Obama had during his 2008 campaign—when they won the state by four points-- has appeared to wane.

“The energy is just not there,” said Kevin Mattson, a professor of contemporary history at Ohio University, who did some work for the Obama campaign in 2008.

“I think Ohio is going to be really hard for [Obama] because people here are saying ‘Where are the jobs?’” Mattson added. “Ohio is not looking good economically. People are looking at gas prices, at unemployment, and that’s how they’re going to vote.

“They want change,” he said.