FAIRFAX, VA. - President Obama's new companion on the campaign trail these days is Big Bird, star of every campaign speech since Republican rival Mitt Romney vowed to kick the giant yellow Muppet off the dole.
Don't worry, Obama facetiously assured a Virginia crowd on Friday, Romney is onto this layabout and his friends at public broadcasting who are now "driving the deficits" of federal government. "Governor Romney plans to let Wall Street run wild again, but he's going to bring down the hammer on 'Sesame Street,'" Obama joked. "It makes perfect sense."
The crowd howled. Obama returned to the reference several times in a feisty speech that reeled from joking about his Republican opponent to railing against his agenda.
He also celebrated much-needed good economic news Friday as the unemployment rate dropped to its lowest level since he took office. "Today's news should give us some encouragement," Obama told thousands gathered in the rain for an afternoon rally at Cleveland State University. "It shouldn't be an excuse for the other side to try to talk down the economy just to try to score a few political points."
"We are moving forward again," he said.
It was a far cry from the candidate people saw on stage earlier in the week during the first presidential debate, dutifully taking notes on Romney's remarks and avoiding not only eye contact but direct confrontation in general.
Friday was a more typical day of campaign performance for Obama, who throughout the fall has shown that he is plenty willing to mix it up. He derides Republican economic philosophy and the Romney agenda, but he tends to tinge personal references with humor. Even when he and Romney aren't in the same room, advisers say, the president doesn't like to come off as mean. On Friday, he took on his competitor in a joking way, but with a sharp political point.
"My opponent has been trying to do a two-step and re-position, and got an extreme makeover," Obama said. "But the bottom line is, his underlying philosophy is the top-down economics that we've seen before."
As for reducing the deficit, Obama said, "his big example is to go after public television. So for all you moms and kids out there, don't worry -- someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird. Rounding him up."
A young boy began to chant, "Save Big Bird! Save Big Bird!" The adults around him joined in.
Supporters in the crowds on Friday said they were happy to see this side of the president. "He was pretty fiery today, and we need that," said Paul Davis, a medical student in Cleveland. "I hope he's able to unpack the lies and distortions we hear from Governor Romney and his corporate sponsors."
The Washington Post contributed to this report.