Folksy Obama glides into campaign mode

By Jeff Mason

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Dogged by a budget battle at home, President Barack Obama pitched energy plans and tested campaign themes on Wednesday in his first trip outside Washington since launching his re-election bid.

Obama, whose 2012 campaign officially kicked off on Monday, visited a wind turbine company in Pennsylvania and addressed a civil rights organization in New York, where he pledged to keep fighting for the policy priorities that helped propel him to the White House.

The trip is a template for the coming months: rolling out policy priorities that his advisers hope will help define the presidential race in 2012.

He plans a similar trip to Indiana on Friday.

Obama told a mostly black audience at the event in New York that “change” — his campaign slogan in 2008 — had not always come as quickly as hoped during his first years as president.

“There are times when change can seem painfully slow to come by,” he said, reminding listeners to remember his accomplishments on healthcare and financial regulatory reform.

“Draw inspiration from the fact that we know change is possible,” he said.

In Pennsylvania, Obama’s visit to the wind turbine company was meant to highlight his plans to boost renewable fuels while cutting oil imports by a third in roughly a decade.

But the venue and Obama’s folksy style underscored the political nature of the event.

He spoke in front of a huge American flag, took off his suit jacket to appear less formal, joked with questioners in the crowd and paced casually on the stage away from the presidential podium.

“Here’s what I said (in 2008). I said I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president, but I can promise you this … . I will be honest with you about the challenges we face and how we can solve these problems and I will take what I hear from you,” he said.

“I have kept that promise. I’m thinking about you guys every single day when I’m in the White House, and I’m going to keep pushing, I’m going to keep fighting for you.”

BUDGET FIGHT, AHEAD OF THE PACK

The president is currently battling Republicans over how to cut spending in 2011 in a preview of a looming fight over reducing the deficit that could dominate the 2012 campaign. The current battle could result in a government shutdown at the end of this week if a deal is not reached.

After meeting with Republican and Democratic leaders at the White House on Tuesday, Obama pledged to call more meetings on Wednesday and Thursday if an agreement were not reached, but his travel plans remained unchanged.

Later in the day he scheduled a meeting with leaders at the White House upon his return.

Obama filed papers on Monday to declare himself a candidate for re-election, jumping ahead of potential Republican rivals and setting in motion an effort to raise as much as $1 billion, which would shatter the $750 million campaign finance record he set in 2008.

Early polls show Obama ahead of not-yet-declared candidates from the Republican Party, though the White House is keenly aware that the state of the economy and the price of gasoline will be critical components for his ability to stay in office.

Obama said the United States needed a “sustained energy policy” to insulate itself from swings in the oil market.

“There’s no magical formula to driving gas prices down,” he said. “It’s a steady improvement in terms of how we use energy and where we get energy from.”

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick and Alister Bull in Washington; Editing by Xavier Briand)

Folksy Obama glides into campaign mode