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Associated Press
At a campaign stop in Ohio last week, President Obama pitched himself as protector of the middle class.

Obama portrays self as part of audience

– Candidate Barack Obama tells a compelling story about the American middle-class dream. In shirtsleeves in the town square in Sandusky, Ohio, and at twilight in Parma, he explains how the theory at the heart of most of American life – that hard work and responsibility will lead to prosperity – is under threat.

His audiences during his two-day bus tour are attentive. When they hear him speak, some say, “Amen.” Others repeat his last word out loud, as if to affirm its truth. A man in Poland raised his hand as if in prayer, but most keep both hands raised to film him on their cellphones.

The call-and-response might make it feel like a church service, but the candidate is not speaking to his audience, he is speaking from it. He is one of them, he says, which is why he understands this threat to their way of life. “I believe in that basic promise of America because I lived it. That’s my biography,” he said amid the hay bales and a large American flag in Maumee, Ohio, last week. At the end of the day, he said, “I saw myself in you. I saw my hopes and dreams in you. And when I see your kids, I see my kids. And when I see your grandparents, I see my grandparents.”

This guy may really have a shot against the incumbent.

Barack Obama’s pitch that he should be re-elected as the protector of the middle class is so skillful one might forget that a plurality of voters say their lives have gotten worse since he took office. The tension between Barack Obama the campaigner and Barack Obama the sitting president was on full display during his bus tour through Ohio last week. He is a talented orator, and the middle-class audiences – selected by his impressive state organization – echoed his pitch with wild enthusiasm for the local television stations and Obama’s ad-makers who were capturing every moment. On the other hand, as the trip came to an end, the president had to contend with another tepid jobs report. Only 84,000 jobs were created in June. For the last three months, the average job growth has been 75,000, barely half what is needed to keep up with population growth.

Obama has not gotten the job done. For more than 41 weeks, the unemployment rate has exceeded 8 percent. Mitt Romney is running as the guy who can get the job done. He has had enough success turning around companies and staging the Olympics that a weary nation looking for some hope might try electing a candidate with that kind of résumé.

That is the grim reality back on display in Ohio last week. The president’s strategy, laid out over two days, was to explain how Republican single-minded obstructionism and the depth of the recession have limited what he has been able to accomplish.

At the same time, his message carried a warning: If voters chose Mitt Romney, they would be returning to the policies that had helped create that recession and picking a candidate who wouldn’t be thinking about them when he took office.

The pitch was personal. At each stop, the president talked about how his grandparents had achieved the American Dream with government help. His father had fought in World War II and gone back to college on the G.I. bill. His grandmother had helped build bombers. He mused about a trip around the country he took as a boy riding Greyhound buses and trains. They stayed in Howard Johnsons, where he never left the pool and thought getting ice from an ice machine was the greatest thing ever.

This life, said the president, was built on a “simple bargain,” that if you played by the rules you’d be OK. That bargain sustained the middle class and led to broad prosperity. Now that bargain is in danger, said Obama, either by the forces of change that have exposed people without health insurance or by the rising cost of college tuition.

It is up to government to strengthen the bargain for the middle class, which is where Obama’s argument turned personal again. The other party doesn’t care about the middle class. The president argued that Republicans have an economic model that doesn’t work: Lower taxes and reduced regulation won’t protect the middle class.

If Barack Obama knows middle-class voters because he has lived their life, then his campaign also would like voters to believe the opposite: Mitt Romney’s wealth and privilege must mean that he can’t possibly understand how regular people live.

In Ohio, this message was more the subtext than an overt attack. Neither the president nor any of his surrogates made any cracks about Mitt Romney’s vacation last week or his gleaming water vehicle. But former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland did attack Romney for his personal bank accounts in off-shore locations as a way to show how little he had in common with middle-class voters.

If there was a place for Obama to receive a bad unemployment report, northeastern Ohio is probably it. It is friendly territory for Democrats. In Ohio, the president could also point to significant domestic achievements like his support for the auto bailout.

At each stop, a plant worker who had been unemployed but later found work, introduced the president, praising him for “betting on America” by supporting the car companies. The president had started his tour outside of Toledo the day before, where he announced that the administration was filing a trade complaint against China’s new duties on some American-made cars, including the Jeep Wrangler, which is made in - wait for it - Toledo.

Mitt Romney did not support the bailout, which means the issue does double duty for the president. He can point to a job-creating achievement and he can make a clear distinction with his opponent.

Ohio is a must-win for the Romney campaign. If President Obama wins Ohio and carries the states John Kerry did in 2004 (pretty likely), he’ll have 264 electoral votes, just six shy of the magic 270 threshold. There are five states he won in 2008 – Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, and Iowa – any one of which could then provide him with the margin for victory.

At times, it feels like the entire campaign might shrink down to a debate about the auto bailout in Ohio. If the president can make his case, despite the foghorn of a sluggish economy, then he really will be like his audience: someone whose job was in danger but saved by the bailout.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”

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