By Amie Parnes - 05/05/12 10:50 AM EDT
If there is ever a moment when President Obama needed to capture the vintage version of himself, it is Saturday’s campaign rallies in swing state Ohio and Virginia.
On the heels of a lukewarm jobs report, the graying, 50-year-old president who has suffered, as he puts it, “dings in the fender” during his three years in office is aiming to generate the level of excitement that typified his 2008 campaign.
His message, foreshadowed in a seven-minute campaign video released this week, is that change is in progress but it takes time.
It’s a sentiment that reflects reality for a battle-scarred president. The economy continues to struggle after the deepest recession in decades, which has left millions unemployed and a jobless rate above 8 percent. And the jobs report released on Friday reveals only 115,000 jobs were added in April.
And then there's Obama’s signature legislative achievement, healthcare reform, which remains unpopular, and could be throw out by the Supreme Court in less than two months.
Obama supporters, including those who worked for him in the last campaign and in the White House, acknowledge that things have changed and that the electorate doesn’t view him in the same light.
But on Saturday and beyond, they are hoping to see glimpses of the man who lured tens of thousands to stadiums, caused grandmothers to shed tears and transformed modern-day politics. While the president has been making campaign-style appearances since last summer, the president’s team hopes that a return to formal stump speechmaking will bring back the president’s mojo.
“I think even though people are a little more tired and he’s got a little more gray, he’s still got the fire and he’s still got the drive,” said one former Obama senior administration official. “He’s just going to need to excite and inspire voters just as much as he did last time if we’re going to pull this off.”
Political observers are sure Obama will try and rekindle the enthusiasm that inspired the Shepard Fairey 'Hope' posters. But this time around, “It’ll be hard for him,” said Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University.
“That enthusiasm has waned over time,” Beck said, adding that Obama is facing the reality incumbent presidents face.
“It’s different to govern than to be a candidate with not much of a record,” he said. “But Obama is a good campaigner. He’s proven he knows how to deliver a speech.”
At the rallies, Obama is expected to outline the stark differences between himself and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
He is also expected to continue to tout his support for the middle class and emphasize that the country shouldn’t go back to the same failed policies in the Bush administration which they say caused the down economy.
It’s unclear how just high Obama will crank up the rhetoric against Romney but Obama’s senior advisers suggest that this is the president’s chance to weigh in wholeheartedly in the debate.
“For the better part of last year, Romney has tried to tear down President Obama with a dishonest, negative campaign that even other Republicans have criticized,” said Obama’s senior campaign strategist David Axelrod. “Well, the monologue is over. Now Romney has to put his record and his agenda up against the president’s, and we look forward to that debate.”
“We’re not the candidate who reinvents himself week to week,” Axelrod said. “If you want that, you’re going to need to go somewhere else.”
At the same time, particularly a day after news of the latest jobs report, the Romney campaign is looking to hammer home the point that Obama has an “abysmal record,” and that he spent his time working on flawed healthcare legislation instead of focusing on the economy.
“President Obama has no message or rationale for his re-election [and] he has no record of achievement to run on,” said one Romney aide. “All he has is a record of broken promises.
“No matter how hard his campaign tries to re-brand or re-image him, he cannot run from his record,” the Romney aide said. “It’s not 2008 anymore and there is nothing magical for them to capture.”
This week in the lead up to the Obama rallies, the Republican National Committee aimed to puncture Obama’s 2008 hope and change slogan, seeking to portray an image of a candidate who made empty promises and has spent the majority of his time campaigning for reelection instead of governing.
“The candidate of ‘hope and change’ has become the president of ‘hype and blame,’ RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters this week. “He once promised to hold himself accountable. He said he was going to be different. He said he was going to be transparent. Now he spends his time making excuses for all of his failures.”
Priebus said Obama has done little to fix unemployment as it hovers just above 8 percent for months. “So what does the president do? Well, he blames everyone and everything except the man in the mirror,” he said.
But even Republicans acknowledge that they’re about to see an Obama in his element appear before a large, enthusiastic crowd.
“Candidate Obama is one of the most talented politicians that the country has seen,” said Pete Snyder, the 2012 Republican Party of Virginia victory chair. “As a candidate there’s no one who could give a better speech, no one who would give an more energetic rally.
“He was a brilliant campaigner with a message appropriate for the time,” Snyder said. "But this campaign is night and day from hope in change.
The 2012 campaign, Synder said, is “in search of a slogan” and has “a presidency without a purpose.”
But Obama advisers and supporters staunchly disagree and they say that Obama will finally have an opportunity to strut his stuff and put his campaign on full display on the rallies on Saturday.
“Everyone knows how tough this election is going to be but people forget how good he is on the stump,” said Jen Psaki, who served on Obama’s 2008 campaign and was his deputy communications director at the White House. “This is an opportunity to do that.”