He has become passionate rather than passive, confrontational rather than conciliatory, charging ahead rather than leading from behind.
Barack Obama, who so often looked like the presidency was a heavy burden, is enjoying himself on the campaign trail—and revamping his image in the process. For all the focus in recent months on Mitt Romney’s missteps, what’s been overlooked is how Obama has found his voice and made few mistakes along the way.
It is easier, quite obviously, to make promises to voters, as Obama did in inspiring fashion in 2008, than to fulfill them, as the president has since struggled to do. But the election has liberated him from the messy realities of governing to the more comfortable terrain of rhetoric and response.
Mike McCurry, the former Clinton White House spokesman, says the “adrenaline rush” of campaigning is clearly changing Obama. A couple of months ago, “he didn’t look happy. He looked tense. Now he’s hit a stride.”
Here he is, mocking Romney’s signature economic policy: “Tax cuts when we’re at war. Tax cuts when we’re at peace ... Tax cuts to lose a few extra pounds.” There he is, skewering the Republican philosophy: “If you don’t have health care, hope you don’t get sick. If you can’t afford college, borrow money from your parents.” Here he is again, dismissing the GOP convention as a “rerun”: “You might as well have watched it on black-and-white TV, with some rabbit ears on there.”
A top campaign adviser says the president has been freed from the Beltway bubble: “As he’s gotten out of the White House more, he’s gotten back into his campaign groove. The contrast that Romney has drawn has made it easier for the president to draw contrasts as well.”
And that has been central to Obama’s revival. Once hailed as a great communicator, he failed to sell his stimulus package and health-care law, leaving him saddled with unpopular accomplishments. Lawmakers and donors alike complained that he was aloof. Obama spent months talking about a failed effort to strike a budget compromise with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell that took the country to the brink of default.
“He played too much of an inside game for years,” says Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist raising money for the campaign and a columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “When he came in, he had the most energized electorate my party has ever seen, and then he seemed to just hunker down in a room with Larry Summers and Peter Orszag. The president didn’t take his movement outside of Washington enough.”
That is hardly a problem now, with Obama practically qualifying for residence in states like Ohio and Florida. But the president is still saddled with an ailing economy and a middling record. The difference now is that he can argue, in effect, the other guy would be worse.
Before Romney won the nomination, Obama had to defend his performance against constant Republican attacks, echoed in the conservative media. But with an opponent who has committed a long series of unforced errors, most recently denigrating 47 percent of American taxpayers as freeloaders, Obama has been able to shift the campaign from a referendum to a choice.
In similar fashion, says McCurry, Clinton sharpened his candidacy, after losing both houses of Congress, when the Republicans formally nominated Bob Dole.
“He had not crystallized his argument for reelection until he watched Dole deliver his acceptance speech,” which included the line “let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action.” In the hotel room, says McCurry, Clinton “slammed the desk and said, ‘no, that’s wrong. You’ve got to be a bridge to the future. That’s how I want to make my closing argument.’”
Obama is now building that argument. The difference in his style, says Donna Brazile, the Democratic Party’s vice chairman, is that “he has a singular focus. The campaign has done a great job of keeping him on message. Sometimes he goes off script.”
During a conversation with the president early this year, Brazile says, “I thought he was a little too overeager to get into campaign mode.” White House adviser David Plouffe “convinced him he had many items on his plate in terms of running the government. He was anxious to get out there. It was like an airplane sitting on the tarmac, waiting to take off.”
“He played too much of an inside game for years.”
The president also is backed by a huge campaign infrastructure and many millions of dollars in advertising, all designed to refurbish his image and tear down Romney.
Obama has blundered now and then. His declaration that “you didn’t build that,” even though he meant that businesses get help from government investments, allowed the GOP to paint him as anti-business.
His Democratic convention speech, while deliberately devoid of soaring rhetoric, was widely panned by the press. His comment in a Univision interview last week that “you can’t change Washington from the inside” allowed Romney to snipe that the president had given up on change.
But Obama has managed, through his enthusiasm on the stump, to cast himself as a champion of the middle class and to remind even those lukewarm about his candidacy that he is a likable guy.
There may be one other factor that was highlighted at the Charlotte convention. “Bill Clinton calling with sound advice every 20 minutes is a good way to keep you going,” says Brazile.
None of this assures an Obama victory, and the race remains close. The press is portraying the president as the likely victor because he has pulled ahead nationally and in most swing states, but polls can be fickle.
And the downside of incumbency is being held accountable for any outbreak of bad news, as when American diplomats were killed in Libya.
It may be that Obama is simply a better campaigner than president. But his heart is in the game, which has not always been apparent during his first term. The question facing the voters is which Barack Obama they will get if they give him a second one.