By Amie Parnes - 01/26/12 02:26 PM EST
A relaxed, confident Barack Obama hit a pitch-perfect high note last week at the famed Apollo Theater in New York.
President Obama sang, “I’m so in love with you” — from Al Green’s hit “Let’s Stay Together” — and showed the world just how comfortable — if not sanguine — he is as he heads into the election year.
At Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, the same gravitas was on full display as a combative Obama took to the House lectern and told lawmakers in no uncertain terms that he would not “back down” in moving ahead with his agenda.
Observers say it’s probably no coincidence a seemingly self-satisfied (and singing!) Obama has emerged in recent weeks, given a string of political victories and signs the economy is improving.
“Their internal polling is probably showing that things have steadied a bit and is giving him a bit of a boost,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor at Boston University who specializes in political communications.
“And compare Romney, who has been staggering lately, and the rest of the GOP contenders with Obama, who is on his fifth wind, and the comparisons aren’t pretty,” Berkovitz added.
With nine months to go until the election, Democratic pollster Fred Yang said there’s a lot for Team Obama to feel positive about these days.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out on Thursday shows that Americans are feeling more optimistic about the economy and the way Obama is handling it.
For the first time in seven months, more people among those surveyed approved of Obama's job performance than disapproved--48 percent to 46 percent.
And 45 percent of those polled said they approved of Obama's handling of the economy, a boost of six points from mid-December.
“There are three legs to the stool — personality, leadership and the economy — and right now he has a leg up on two out of three,” Yang said. “The president should be feeling pretty good.”
It would have been hard to imagine a singing, strutting Obama in August, when he all but allowed Congress to kick him in the shins.
Back then, it seemed like nothing was going right. Obama was dealt a major blow during the summer’s debt-ceiling talks. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) blew him off, refusing the president’s phone calls. His approval ratings were in a downward spiral.
A couple of months later, a woebegone Obama seemed down on his luck.
Asked in an ABC interview in November if the odds were stacked against him in the upcoming presidential race, Obama replied, “Absolutely.
“I’m used to being the underdog,” Obama said.
Obama’s campaign wouldn’t respond to questions on Wednesday about whether the president stills sees himself as the underdog.
Republicans aren’t exactly buying the president’s confidence.
If the president was doing so well, they ask, why would he need to make repeated visits to battleground states?
“They want to have it both ways,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “Clearly he’s the sitting president; he has the microphone and the podium; if they want to say he’s the underdog, that’s fine.
“But I do think he’s put himself in a precarious position in many of the battleground states,” Kukowski added. “There’s a reason he’s going to Iowa, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada [this week]. He has some ground to make up.”
Observers say Obama’s attitude of late is a sign the election year is heating up.
“The election has effectively begun, so to some extent [Obama’s] goals have changed,” said Christopher Federico, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. “He probably feels he needs to be more feisty, more active. He can’t be as hesitant.”
Obama showed absolutely no hesitance when he plunged into his melodic moment at a fundraiser last week. And his instincts might have been right: His crooning became an instant YouTube sensation. It made its way onto all three network newscasts the following day, and racked up countless hits on the cable networks. The judges from “American Idol” even praised his version of “Showtime at the Apollo.”
Knowing they had struck political gold, Team Obama moved quickly to turn the Al Green riff into a smartphone ring.
The moment was a good one for Obama, who can often seem cold, distant and professorial.
“He can seem starched,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “And a bit reserved.”
Berkovitz added that “no one looks as uncomfortable during a factory tour” as Obama.
But in recent weeks, Simmons said Obama has attempted to “marry his governing style with his campaign style.”
That much was true on Tuesday night, when Obama walked into the House chamber with an air of confidence, a contrast to the last time he spoke on Capitol Hill, when, at arguably his weakest moment politically, he couldn’t even deliver his address at the usual 9 p.m. hour. (At the time, some reporters quipped that he was the pre-game show for a football game.)
At the height of the address, Obama even tried his hand at a joke on unnecessary regulations. “We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill — because milk was somehow classified as an oil.
“With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk,” Obama said, as the chamber erupted in laughter and applause.
On Wednesday, Obama seemed content with the way it all went down.
“He felt good about the speech,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “He felt very satisfied with the way the speech came together.”
This story was posted at 5 a.m. and updated at 9:26 a.m.