Obama 2012: Return of the road warrior

Yes, President Obama is on a taxpayer-funded campaign swing. No, he’s not rolling out specific economic proposals yet.

But for a wounded president, it sure is some darn good politics.

As Obama tore through the Midwest and his Republican opponents this week, Democrats in Washington and around the country might have been hit with a wave of nostalgia.

They remember this guy. He’s not quite the sunny optimist he once was, and he looks older — but he sure is fighting mad at those pinheads in Washington.

The president has his swagger back, and has returned to a crowded campaign trail sending notice: He has no intention of just giving this thing away.

In the days immediately following the debt-ceiling deal, a period in which polls suggest most of America was nauseated with Washington over the federal debt debate and eventual agreement, Obama seemed broken.

When the president came to the White House briefing room the night of the deal, and a couple days later in his Rose Garden remarks about the legislation’s final passage, Obama, once the ambassador of hope and change, looked defeated by a Washington he could not change.

His disdain for Congress, and a growing belief that he is being treated differently from other presidents, had given way to a funk.

No more.

Obama now is using his anger. He is a wild man loosed upon the Midwest, and in some ways, he is already shaping the 2012 battlefield to his liking.

As long as the economy is teetering on the brink, Obama’s Chicago team prays morning and night that next year’s election will be a choice between Obama and an extremely right-leaning Republican.

If it’s a referendum on Obama, they know, the election favors the challenger.

So while the Republican National Committee convulses over the political nature of this taxpayer-funded trip, Obama and his White House team are engaged in the first smart act of politics this White House has displayed in a long while.

After all, what better way or time to draw a contrast with his would-be opponents than when they are in Iowa engaged in a foot race to the far right?

On a day when Obama blasted Congress for impeding economic growth, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was hinting that he was carrying a gun and that 57-year-old Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke might be physically thrashed in Texas.

The president is on the road putting the blame for the S&P downgrade on House Republicans, and he can point to comments from a representative of the credit-rating agency who said one factor in the decision was comments by GOP lawmakers who doubted the necessity of raising the debt ceiling.

Nearly all of Obama’s potential opponents opposed the deal, and all said they would reject a deficit-cutting package that included 10 times the spending cuts to tax increases.

It’s early, of course, but the Obama team believes the GOP winner in Iowa will have to move to the far right, especially with the Tea Party keeping score. The president is trying to make it very difficult for any of these candidates to make the transition from primary candidate to general-election contender, and he is setting himself up as the reasonable alternative.

By showing up to the campaign trail early, Obama is trying to add definition to his opponents. And in the absence of any real job growth, the president has to be near perfect when it comes to the politics if he wants to win next year.

“He’s best when he’s drawing a contrast, for sure,” said one Democratic strategist.

Obama appears to be just getting started.

The president is openly warning of political war against House Republicans when they return in September. In Iowa on Monday, he flat-out threatened them with electoral defeat if they don’t start compromising.

If Obama brings his populist, anti-Washington anger back to the White House, pulling out the brass knuckles to battle with Congress, Democrats will rally around him.

This is the Obama they have begged for. And this is an Obama that is formidable. The guy in the big bus has a lot of scars from the 2008 campaign, and he is no shrinking violet. At least, not outside of Washington.

To be sure, the president’s challengers are going to hit their grooves too, and Obama’s reelection hopes will be in doubt as long as unemployment remains above 9 percent.

But for now, Obama has the fight he wants. He has opponents, he has villains and, perhaps most importantly, he appears to have his groove back.

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