JACKSONVILLE -- President Barack Obama returned Thursday to the Florida city he used in 2008 to draw a stark contrast to his past Republican rival, reviving the same themes of an embattled middle class against his new opponent Mitt Romney.
In 2008, after John McCain memorably told a Jacksonville audience that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong,” Obama drew 9,000 supporters to Veteran’s Memorial Arena on the eve of his election and promised change and hope.
This time, Obama told a sellout crowd estimated at 3,000 that the Prime Osborn Convention Center that Wall Street’s “culture of anything goes” and the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” are among the factors that continue to threaten the future of the middle class.
“We are here today because we recognize that this basic bargain, this essence of who we are — the simple American Dream — is at risk like never before,’’ he said. “What’s standing in our way is not technical solutions …What’s standing in our way is our politics.’’
But Obama steered clear of attacks on Romney’s business record and instead tailored his message toward seniors and the middle class on the first day of a two-day campaign swing in the nation's biggest battleground state. He stops in Fort Myers and Orlando on Friday.
The president warned that Romney’s proposal to repackage Medicare as a fixed benefit is a “voucher” system “will end Medicare as we know it” as it forces seniors to purchase private health insurance.
He said his health care reforms have helped seniors receive discounted prescription drugs and get access to free preventive care.
Republicans countered with their own claim that Obama’s policies will dramatically recast Medicare and noted a Congressional Budget Office report that said payments under Obama’s Affordable Care Act will reduce benefits in the Medicare program by $507 billion and shrink enrollment by 50 percent.
Hours later, when he addressed about 675 people at the Century Village retirement community in West Palm Beach, Obama received only mild applause for touting his health care planned — the one Republicans dubbed ObamaCare.
He attacked Romney for supporting tax cuts for the wealthy while supporting future Medicare reductions.
"It’s wrong to ask you to pay more for Medicare so that people who are doing well right now get even more,” Obama said, claiming that Romney could wind up raising taxes on the middle class — something the Romney camp denies.
“"I don’t believe you can reduce the deficit without asking the wealthiest Americans to give up the tax cuts they’ve enjoyed,” Obama said.
After his remarks at Century Village, Obama met with two dozen donors who contributed $20,000 each to his re-election efforts. He hosted a similar fundraising event in Jacksonville earlier in the day.
Overall, Obama has his own troubles when it comes to seniors and healthcare. They generally don’t like the president’s healthcare plan, which trims $500 billion from Medicare over a decade.
About 52 percent of likely Florida voters view the federal health care law unfavorably while 43 percent view it favorably, according to a poll conducted last week by Mason Dixon Polling & Research Inc on behalf of The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9.
Seniors are the least likely to support the plan, the poll shows. Exactly half of Florida voters want the healthcare law repealed; 43 percent want to keep it. Overall, the poll showed Obama getting 46 percent of the vote and Romney 45 percent in the Florida poll. That’s well within the poll’s 3.5 percent error margin.
In his 27-minute speech in Jacksonville, Obama once again blamed “top-down economics,” a decade of jobs “shipped overseas,” spending on two wars and two tax cuts “that took us from record surpluses to record deficits” for the weakened middle class. He reminded voters than he has said it may take “more than one year or one term or more than one president” to heal the wounds.
Obama appealed to the cheering crowd to work for him and predicted the opposition "will spend more money than we’ve ever seen in our lifetime on ads that same the same thing — the economy is not where it should be and it’s all Obama’s fault."
Obama cited his goal to trim the deficit by squeezing money out of health care and raising taxes on the wealthy: “I just want to go back to the rates they we were paying under Bill Clinton, which, by the way. worked pretty well."
Obama has sunk as much as $17 million in Florida ads — mostly negative — but he remains statistically tied with Romney in the Sunshine State and other battleground states, according to a batch of state and national polls.
In West Palm Beach, Obama made no mention of his negative campaign. He did, however, fault Republicans for planning to spend huge sums on negative commercials featuring unflattering pictures of him, including ones that show him with a “droopy eye.”
“They’ll have a bunch of ads with scary voices,” he said. “And they’ll say the same thing over and over again”
The crowd got into the act.
"Fight the power!" one elderly woman yelled.
Republicans responded Thursday with a new attack ad in Florida and eight other states, paid for by the GOP-supporting super PAC American Crossroads. The ad, entitled “Smoke,” opens with a stream of critical negative claims and then announces the president is "racking up $4 billion in new debt every day, the unemployment rate is stuck above 8 percent, and family incomes are falling.“
Polls show that voters are more pessimistic than in 2008 and increasingly believe the president bears some blame for the bad economy and say Obama isn’t offering up much in the way of a hope-and-change campaign.
“Back then, it was a positive, message-oriented campaign,” said Brad Coker, a Duval County resident and state pollster with Mason Dixon Polling & Research Inc. “This is now slash and burn. And it doesn’t get people as excited.”
The president’s strategy in Florida is defensive in part, as both sides acknowledge that while Obama could craft a victory by losing the Florida’s 29 electoral votes, a Romney victory is virtually impossible without Florida.
Caroline Ebong of St. Augustine was in the Jacksonville during Obama’s election-eve visit four years ago and remembers the crowd was “literally fired up.” Now, she said, it’s too early to make a comparison but believes Congress is to blame for the president’s incomplete record.
“If he doesn’t seem to have accomplished as much as he wanted, it’s not for lack of trying,’’ said Ebong, a black Democrat.
Black turnout in 2008 was decisive for Obama and accounted for nearly a quarter of the vote in Duval County. This year, black voters are expected to again flock to the polls. One major black figure from Jacksonville — the city’s first African American mayor, Alvin Brown — is keeping his distance from the campaign and wasn’t in his hometown to greet the president.
But Coker, the Mason Dixon pollster, said the total turnout could be lower in Jacksonville and elsewhere for Democrats and black voters specifically.
“After three or four years, the thrill does wear off,” Coker said. “They probably won’t come out in the numbers they did in 2008, but there’s lots of time for this campaign to play out.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Affordable Care Act trims Medicare Advantage by $500 billion over a decade. The act calls for $500 billion in savings from Medicare itself.