As expected, President Obama’s re-election campaign unveiled its first television ad of the year yesterday. There’s been some chatter about whether it’s too early for such a step, but I don’t buy it — if Obama for America has the resources, there’s no reason not to start getting the message out. The president’s Republican rivals are obviously all over the airwaves.

What I found curious about the commercial, though, was the message and the circumstances that precipitated it.

YouTube video

The ad touts the president’s record on energy policy and ethics/transparency — two issues that generally seem peripheral to the larger national debate over jobs and the economy.

So why start with this as the first broadcast ad of the re-election year? Because Obama for America saw the need to respond to a targeted attack.

Without mentioning them by name, [the new ad] takes on Charles and David Koch, the wealthy conservative businessmen who have opposed Mr. Obama through the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.

Americans for Prosperity announced this week that it would run a $6 million national advertising campaign that portrays the president as running a pay-to-play government. It attacks him in a commercial that highlights the Solyndra scandal, which involved a solar power company with ties to the Obama administration that declared bankruptcy after receiving more than $500 million in federal money. […]

It opens with a shot at the Koch brothers. “Secretive oil billionaires attacking President Obama with ads fact checkers say are not tethered to the facts,” an announcer says over the low chords of a piano as an image from the Americans for Prosperity advertisement plays in the background. “Independent watchdogs call this president’s record on ethics unprecedented,” it continues. “President Obama kept his promise to toughen ethics rules and strengthen America’s energy economy.”

Though the size of the ad buy is unclear, the investment was reportedly “significant,” and puts the ad on airwaves in four key battleground states: Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia. (Some reports suggest the commercial will also be seen in Wisconsin.)

It’s a sign of the times: the president’s campaign wasn’t pushed onto the air because of a Republican candidate or the RNC; it was pushed by right-wing billionaires hiding behind a secretive, innocuous-sounding attack operation.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.