He cajoles his audience into action. He needles rival Mitt Romney with biting mockery. He reminds voters about the past and where he wants to take them.
In the final days of his final campaign, President Barack Obama is part community organizer, part history professor and part locker-room basketball coach, imploring crowds — and the wider electorate — to let him finish what he started. The nation has been bruised by recession and war, he contends, but remains resilient and is coming back.
Most voters may see only snippets of Obama's speeches on television. But for the crowds who cram into high school gymnasiums in cities like Springfield, Obama's message is one of choice and contrast, of tough decisions made and promises kept. At stake, he says, is a fight for the middle class.
"The folks at the very top in this country, they don't need another champion in Washington. They've got lobbyists. They've got PACs. They've always got a seat at the table," Obama says in Ohio, a state at the heart of his re-election strategy. "But people who need a champion are the Americans whose letters I read every night — the men and women I meet on the campaign trail every day."
People like a laid-off furniture worker retraining at age 55, a small-restaurant owner who needs a loan to expand, the cooks and waiters who staff a Las Vegas hotel and want to buy their first home or send their child to college.
"All those kids in inner cities and small farm towns, and the rolling Virginia hills, or the valleys of Ohio, or right here in Springfield — kids dreaming of becoming doctors and scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs and diplomats, and maybe even a president," Obama says, his voice booming into the microphone. "They need a champion in Washington."
Obama rocketed to fame with his message of unity at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but his populist argument befits a man running for re-election in a divided nation and a tight-as-a-drum race against Romney. His remarks have remained remarkably consistent for months, drawing on a thesis and a slate of policy proposals formed after the debt ceiling fight during the summer of 2011 — arguably the low point of his presidency.
From the outset, he reminds audiences of where the country has been. In 2008, when he won the Democratic nomination, "we were in the middle of two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
Throughout, he tries to connect with the audience. "Fired up?" he asks, reprising the favorite applause line from the 2008 campaign. "Ready to go!" the crowd responds. Few speeches end without someone shouting, "We love you," prompting Obama to respond, "I love you back."
When Obama stabs at Romney's record, the crowd regularly boos. "Don't boo. Vote!" Obama instructs them in Springfield. "Voting's the best revenge."
In the aftermath of the damage from East Coast storm Sandy, Obama talks about his attention to the recovery effort, pointing to it as an example of American unity, "no matter how tough times are, we're all in this together."
But at every stop, as he has for months, Obama aims to draw bright lines with Romney and set up the campaign as a choice. He defends his record and warns that Romney would take the nation back to the policies of the Bush administration and the crumbling economy that marked its final days.
The choice message is everywhere, right down to the light blue posters declaring, "Forward!" The alternative, Obama reasons, is going backwards — a fitting message for a community like Springfield, which was once featured in a 1983 Newsweek issue entitled, "The American Dream," marking the magazine's 50th anniversary.
Obama guards against being cast as the status quo, belittling Romney as nothing more than a "salesman" who is trying to make the change argument with "the very same policies that failed our country so badly."
In Ohio, where one in eight is employed by the auto industry, he rails against Romney for suggesting automakers Chrysler and General Motors were adding jobs in China at the expense of workers here. He lumps Romney in with Republicans, charging his opponents with hoping Obama's faithful will "just give up, just walk away, and leave them to make the decisions. They're betting on cynicism. Ohio, I'm betting on you."
The tough talk is often laced with humor. Following a disastrous first debate in Denver, he ridiculed Romney's plan to cut the deficit, saying his opponent would only commit to ending the federal subsidy to PBS, the equivalent of getting tough on Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Elmo. "Oscar is hiding out in his trashcan," Obama joked later.
During a rally in northern Virginia, Obama said his rival had caught "Romnesia," causing him to forget past positions on issues.
Jokes aside, Obama regularly casts his presidency as the result of a movement, a coming together of a diverse group of voters who wanted change. The message is full of self-empowerment, with the president telling voters a second term rests upon their shoulders.
"We've come too far to grow fainthearted," Obama says. "Now is the time to keep pushing."
In a few days, he will know the outcome.
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