(Photo credit BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)
By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
On Thursday, President Obama cast the upcoming presidential election as a choice between his defense of the middle class and Mitt Romney's plans to put the wealthy and businesses first.
"In this election, you have two very different visions to choose from," Obama told about 1,500 people at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.
"This isn't some abstract debate. This isn't another trivial Washington argument," the president said. "This is a make-or-break moment for our middle class."
He aligned himself and his policies with the nation's middle class -- arguing he is not in favor of a bigger government or "helping people who refuse to help themselves." He cast Romney and Republicans as favoring "a no-holds-barred, government-is-the-enemy, market-is-everything approach."
"At a moment this big, a moment when so many people are still struggling, I think you deserve a real debate about the economic plans we're proposing," Obama said.
Shortly before Obama's speech, Romney delivered his own economic address in Cincinnati, on the other end of Ohio. Romney quipped that Obama was facing a "one-term proposition," using a term the president himself warned years ago could be his fate if the economy didn't improve.
Though the White House had made clear there would be no new policy proposals in the speech, Obama campaign officials cast it as the most forward-looking and prescriptive speech he has delivered on the choices in the campaign. Several times he referred directly to his desire for a "second term."
Obama spent nearly as much time berating what he said were the plans of Romney and congressional Republicans to slash taxes and regulations as he did on his own proposals to invest in education, energy and infrastructure.
The contrasting economic visions, Obama said, will be the key to the election -- something the Romney campaign hopes is true. "Everything else is just noise," Obama said. "Everything else is just a distraction."
The last few weeks have been difficult for Obama, beginning with a weak Labor Department report that indicated the economy grew by 69,000 jobs in May and ending with his own rhetorical gaffe that "the private sector is doing just fine."
"Over the next five months, this election will take many twists and many turns," Obama said, citing daily polls, gaffes and controversies. "I recently made my own unique contribution to that process. It wasn't the first time. It won't be the last."
What's important, Obama said, is that the election will be "about our economic future."
"More than anything else, this election presents a choice between two fundamentally different visions of how to create strong, sustained growth, how to pay down our long-term debt, and most of all how to generate good middle-class jobs, so people can have confidence that if they work hard, they can get ahead."
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who tops many political experts' lists for the GOP vice presidential nomination, said Obama "has tried to blame the bad economic news on everything except his policies."
"Clearly, his stimulus hasn't worked, nor has the class warfare, anti-business rhetoric or his big-government approach," Portman said.
The president's re-election campaign chose Cleveland for the speech because Ohio will be a crucial swing state in November and has benefited from administration policies, including Obama's bailout of the Big Three automakers.
Beyond the Washington area, in fact, Obama visited Ohio for official policy events more than any other state during his first two and a half years in office. He added numerous campaign events in 2010 on behalf of then-Democratic governor Ted Strickland, who lost to Republican John Kasich.