The Associated Press
President Barack Obama speaks to students and parents at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., Friday about his efforts to prevent interest rates from doubling on federal student loans.
WASHINGTON -- In campaign mode for months, President Barack Obama is making his quest for a second term official with rallies in Ohio and Virginia while casting Republican rival Mitt Romney as a flip-flopping protector of the rich.
The events Saturday at two universities, Ohio State and Virginia Commonwealth, were billed as the official kickoff of Obama's re-election bid, even though he's been solidly engaged in his campaign and over a year ago filed the necessary paperwork to run again.
During the events, the president planned to try to convince voters that his policies have put the economy on more solid footing despite fresh evidence that the job market remains weak. He also was expected to try to define Romney as a candidate peddling failed policies for both the economy and national security.
Obama has headlined dozens of fundraisers around the country as his campaign tries to build a solid money advantage over Romney. In his official White House travels, often to the most contested states, the president has pitched policy positions that fit neatly into the campaign's central theme of economic fairness. They range from a millionaires' tax to freezing student loan interest rates.
Official campaign rallies can free Obama up to take more direct aim at Romney. Until now, Obama has used Romney's name sparingly, often choosing instead to cloak his criticisms of Romney in attacks against generic Republicans.
Some Democrats saw Saturday's rallies as a chance for Obama to put Republicans on notice that he plans to be an aggressor in the race.
"What we've seen too many times in the past is Democrats are way too meek in defining their opponents or defining themselves in an election," said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. "This president is not going to let the Republicans define him."
Obama's speeches Saturday weren't expected to differ greatly from what he's been saying in fundraisers or what his team has said in the campaign.
David Axelrod, an Obama senior adviser, said the president wasn't a candidate who "reinvents himself week to week," as Axelrod poked at Romney's sometimes shifting positions. Instead, Axelrod and other advisers Obama would reinforce broader themes of advocating for the middle class and trying to portray Romney as the candidate for the wealthiest Americans.
Republicans argue the Obama campaign is not aiming for consistency, but rather struggling to find a comprehensive vision for a second term.
"They have nothing positive to run," said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "No successful incumbent, no impressive record and no thriving economy."
The latest job numbers from Friday highlighted the challenge Obama faces in convincing voters that he is the right steward for the economy. Job growth slumped for a second straight month. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent but largely because more people stopped looking for work and therefore were no longer deemed unemployed.
In the face of continued economic unease, Obama's rallies Saturday's were intended to recapture some of the youthful, hopeful energy of his 2008 campaign.
The campus settings were likely to create the atmosphere where Obama is at his best, feeding off the energy of an enthusiastic crowd. Young voters were a crucial voting bloc in 2008 victory.
Michelle Obama was joining the president at the stops in states critical to the re-election effort.
In 2008, Obama won Ohio while reversing decades of Republican dominance in Virginia.
Since then, Virginia has swung back toward the GOP in statewide elections. Both Obama and Romney advisers acknowledge that the state is up for grabs.
During a campaign event in Portsmouth, Va., on Thursday, Romney said, "This may well be the state that decides who the next president is."