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The Campaign Begins

President Obama ended his state of the union address Wednesday by lamenting the state of affairs in Washington, where he said it seems that "every day is Election Day."

"We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -- a belief that if you lose, I win," he said.

The irony is that the president's entire speech was perceived by some as a campaign speech more than a traditional state of the union message. It seemed tailored for independent voters, with a hodgepodge of policy announcements one might not have expected to hear from a liberal Democrat. Even the reaction inside the august House chamber - occasional hooting and hollering instead of simple applause -- added to that sense.

Now, Obama has embarked on the traditional post-State of the Union road show. But if there was any doubt about the political nature of the president's travels, his early itinerary speaks volumes: a stop Thursday in the ultra-important I-4 corridor of central Florida, and next week a visit to the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.

"I seem to remember coming to Tampa two weeks before the election," Obama recalled at Thursday's town hall meeting. The St. Petersburg Times lead on the event said Obama had "returned to campaign mode," and was "revving up an adoring crowd." Vice President Biden joined him, the first time they were together in a setting like this since they traveled to Denver to sign the stimulus bill in Denver last February.

Much has changed since then, particularly the political environment. Thursday's State of the Union was seen as a chance to hit the "reset" button and strike a new tone. But Obama bristled at the notion, lambasting press coverage that claimed he was. He recalled a quote from that October 2008 rally in Tampa: "I said, 'Change never comes without a fight.' That was true then. It's true now."

If there is a change in approach, it's the belief on the part of the White House that the constraints of the White House itself has diminished the Obama brand, that he's less of an extra-Beltway change agent behind an East Room podium than he is at a town hall in Tampa.

"It's always nice to get out of Washington ... and spend a little time with the people who sent me to Washington," Obama told the Florida audience.

Today, rather than rolling out more details of a small business lending initiative from the West Wing, he's making a short trip to an actual small business inside the other Beltway in Baltimore. Obama is expected to make more such stops in the weeks ahead, as are members of his Cabinet. He's also dipping back into the new media playbook, with a plan to field questions submitted through YouTube next week.

Alluding to the Massachusetts result in Wednesday's speech, Obama said that it's "clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual." Clearly.