Obama has good reason to feel so fondly towards Virginia. He won the state in 2008 by 6 percentage points, the first time a Democratic nominee has done so in 44 years. Tim Kaine, then-governor of the state at the time, was the second person to endorse Obama back in 2008, and he was in the crowd Friday in an obvious show of re-election support.
"I have great memories of Richmond," Obama told the crowd Friday. "I have wonderful feelings about the Commonwealth of Virginia...the people here I just think have an innate optimism and a can-do spirit that is typical of this country."
The speech marks the official beginning of the serious post-Labor Day campaign season and also demonstrates just how focused Obama is on retaining his hold on purple Virginia in 2012.
"He needs Virginia," GOP strategist John Feehery tells TPM. "And he needs to get out the vote in certain parts of Richmond. Like everything else this President does, it is all about the politics."
Obama knows he can count on Northern Virginia, a reliable liberal stronghold, while the southernmost areas are ruby-red Republican. It's what happens in the counties in between that matters, and Richmond voters will play a key role. In 2008, Obama beat McCain by more than 40,000 votes, nearly flipping the results of the previous election when President George W. Bush beat Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) by roughly 55,000 votes.
So Obama made the two-hour trip south of Washington, D.C. to show supporters in central Virginia their proper respect.
The speech was shorter, more relaxed and folksy than his forceful, televised primetime pitch to Congress the night before, at one pointing Obama joked that "after a few scheduling issues," he went to Congress to "suggest new ways we can grow the economy, help businesses put more Americans back to work."
This version of the speech included a direct appeal to working-class people "here in Richmond" who have "real frustrations, "who work hard to meet your responsibilities" and "expect the people in Washington to do the same thing."
He also tailored the speech by mentioning an 8th grade teacher he had just met who had helped organize the event, as well as local roads and schools that need upgrading. The teacher told him that her class meets in a trailer and was encouraged by his commitment to renovating schools, Obama recalled.
"We shouldn't have kids learning in trailers," he told the crowd. "They should have classrooms with Internet and science labs. You have aging bridges on I-95...you have schools that need to be upgraded...there are construction workers across America ready to put on their tool belt and get dirty."