Kicking off a two-day bus tour of northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, Obama described a political system at a crossroads and argued that his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, would pursue economic policies that favor the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. The president said he was willing to work with "anybody who believes that we're in this together."
"I'm not a Democrat first, I'm an American first," Obama said at a quintessential campaign scene, an early 19th-century museum complex dotted with red-white-and-blue bunting and American flags.
Holding his first campaign event since the Supreme Court's decision a week ago to uphold his health care law, Obama defended his sweeping changes to the system.
"The law I passed is here to stay," he said. "It is going to make the vast majority of Americans more secure."
Obama sought to draw attention to the economies in both states that have been helped by a stronger auto industry, noting that a Jeep plant in nearby Toledo was hiring more workers.
Obama said the experience in both states, where joblessness is below the national average, can be replicated across the country. Making sure that it does, he said, is why he is running for a second term.
"There are some folks who are betting that you will lose interest, that are betting that somehow you are going to lose heart. But here you are in the heat," Obama said, wearing a gray short-sleeved shirt on a steamy, sunny day that forced him to wipe away sweat that dripped down his face. "I'm betting you're not going to lose interest. I'm betting you're not going to lose heart. I still believe on you, I'm betting on you. And the country is betting on you Ohio."
Obama's bus tour was coinciding with Friday's release of the June jobs report. The May report showed unemployment had ticked up to 8.2 percent, while the economy created about 69,000 jobs, raising concerns among Obama's team about the potential for the economy to slow down.
The jobs report will arrive amid a number of mixed signals on the economy. U.S. manufacturing shrank in June for the first time in nearly three years, according to a report issued this week. Private payroll provider ADP reported Thursday that U.S. businesses added 176,000 jobs last month, better than the revised total of 136,000 jobs it reported for May. But shoppers pulled back on spending in June, leading to sluggish sales for many retailers during the month.
Another bad jobs report could undermine Obama's argument that the economy has shown signs of improvement and could rebound more fully if Republicans in Congress implement some of his ideas on job creation. An Associated Press-GfK poll released last month found that more than half of those surveyed, 52 percent, disapproved of his handling of unemployment, compared with 45 percent who approved.
Aboard a Secret Service-approved black bus, Obama's 250-mile "Betting on America" bus tour was taking him through several northern Ohio communities where he received strong support in the 2008 election and winding into western Pennsylvania with a stop in Pittsburgh. Obama won both states four years ago, but Romney and Republicans are competing hard to win them.
Four months before the election, polls show Obama slightly leading Romney nationally and in several states that are critical in the hunt to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Nov. 6 election.
The bus tour starts a new phase of Obama's re-election campaign as he takes a more retail-oriented approach before the September convention in Charlotte, N.C. It follows a six-state bus trip by Romney through the Midwest last month that also included stops in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Recent polls by Quinnipiac University found that Obama held a 9-percentage-point lead over Romney in Ohio and a 6-point lead in Pennsylvania.
The president's itinerary was taking him across the northern manufacturing belt of Ohio, which has felt the recession's sting perhaps more acutely than other parts of the state. Following the stop in Maumee, Obama was holding an ice cream social in a park in Sandusky and another event at a park in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland.
Friday's schedule includes a stop at an elementary school in Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown, followed by a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
With Romney on vacation in New Hampshire, the former Massachusetts governor's team dispatched former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, two potential vice presidential nominees, to some of the same towns along Obama's tour. Romney's campaign counters that Obama has presided over a series of broken promises on unemployment, the economy and the federal deficit.
"No one should bet against America. But we certainly shouldn't double down on Barack Obama," Pawlenty said. "We tried that and it ended up in a busted hand."
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, yet another potential Romney running mate, also had a column running in an Ohio newspaper Thursday accusing Obama of implementing policies that "make it harder, not easier, to create jobs here in Ohio and around the country."
In Maumee, Obama noted the administration planned to file an unfair trade complaint against China with the World Trade Organization centering on new Chinese duties on U.S.-made cars, including the Jeep Wrangler, which is made at the Toledo plant. The U.S. believes the duties violate international trade rules.
White House spokesman Jay Carney noted that the complaint is the seventh such action taken against China by the administration, and that the outcomes of the previous six have favored the U.S. He defended the timing of the latest complaint, saying the process for filing it had been under way for several months.
"It simply can't suddenly be a political action because it happens during the campaign," Carney said.
China has at times become a focal point in the presidential campaign. Romney has accused Obama of being too soft on China, while the Obama campaign has accused Romney of outsourcing jobs to China when he ran the private equity firm Bain Capital.
"Mitt Romney's companies were pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs to low-wage countries," says an Obama ad airing in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states. "He supports tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. President Obama believes in insourcing." The ad also highlights Obama's decision to rescue U.S. automakers General Motors and Chrysler. Both companies have a large manufacturing footprint in Ohio.