What to expect at the Obama campaign kickoff

US President Barack Obama waves upon arrival on Air Force One in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 22, 2011.
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Carolyn Kaster

(CBS News) -- The Obama campaign last night announced President Obama's first two official campaign events: A pair of rallies on May 5 at Ohio State and Virginia Commonwealth University. The campaign wouldn't say exactly what to expect from Mr. Obama at the rallies. But it's not all that hard to figure out the parameters.

For starters: The Obama campaign made clear on a conference call announcing the events that it is not willing to let the election be all about the president. "This is not going to be a one-way discussion," said senior campaign adviser David Axelrod. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina described the race as offering a "choice between two distinct records, and two different visions for the future of this country."

There's a reason for this: Mr. Obama's approval rating has been hovering at or below 50 percent, and the economy, while improving, is still struggling to emerge from recession. With numbers like that, the Obama camp fears it could lose if the spotlight is focused squarely on the president. So its implicit message is this: Even if you aren't enamored with the president, he's still better than the other guy.

You've already heard a lot from the president casting the election as a choice between his plans to go forward and a GOP that wants to move in the other direction; expect Mr. Obama to hit those notes hard on May 5. Asked if we would hear much new from the president at the rallies, Axelrod said no - and took a shot at Romney in the process. "We're not the candidate who reinvents himself from week to week," he said.

Another likely attack will come against Romney's perceived strength: His credentials from the business world. On the conference call, Axelrod said Romney's record is "not about job creation, it was about wealth creation for himself and his partners," before evoking bankrupted companies and outsourced jobs. Romney's record, Axelrod added, does not position Romney as a champion of the middle class.

In 2004, Republicans were able to damage Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry by going after his record in Vietnam, which was supposed to be one of his selling points; Democrats are hoping to recreate that dynamic, though in the other direction, this time around.

On the surface, the May 5 rallies will look much like Mr. Obama's events four years ago, with cheering crowds of adoring young people offering up rapturous support. But after four years of nasty partisan rancor, Mr. Obama can no longer offer up vague promises about a world in which progress comes simply through sheer force of will. He's got little choice but to try to create a contrast, and that means going after Romney aggressively. "It could be worse" may not have the ring of "yes we can," but for this president, it's going to have to do.