President Obama will never again be an election candidate but, for now at least, he has the look — and the rhetorical sound — of a man on the campaign trail.
Thursday brought the latest example, with a rally-style event in Decatur, Ga., intended to build support for the administration’s proposals on pre-K education. It was preceded by a similar stop in Asheville, N.C., to advocate for manufacturing plans, and two major speeches — the State of the Union and the second inaugural address — that were notable for their vigorous liberal tone.
Even Obama’s press secretary on Wednesday sought to undercut Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioLongtime GOP incumbent will not seek reelection Overnight Defense: Commander calls North Korea crisis 'worst' he's seen | Trump signs VA order | Dems push Trump to fill national security posts What’s with Trump’s spelling mistakes? MORE (R-Fla.) by comparing him to the GOP’s vanquished presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
“While the messenger may have changed the message we heard last night from the Republican speaker was entirely consistent with the policy ideas that Mitt Romney campaigned on last year and the American people did not support,” Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One.
Obama’s supporters say he is relishing every moment.
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said that stump-style appearances are “what he’s best at. It’s why he got elected twice. It is his core strength. People voted for him because they wanted him to shake things up and go in a different direction and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Admirers and detractors acknowledge that there are other factors at play, too.
In particular, Obama faces the dilemma that confronts all second-term presidents. He needs to accomplish as much as possible before lame-duck status kicks in — and postpone that day for as long as possible.
“A second-term president has to live the political life of Benjamin Button — you have to work backwards,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House. “You have a year-and-a-half, two years maximum on the domestic agenda.”
This reality, Lehane asserted, has led to a realization on the part of the current administration that “they need to have their foot on the accelerator.”
Even at full speed, however, there is a lot of ground for Obama to cover. For the moment, two of his major priorities are immigration reform and gun control. Neither will be an easy lift.
The partisan haggling over fiscal matters, meanwhile, remains as fractious as ever. When Obama said in the State of the Union that the nation could not “keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” his tone seemed one of hope rather than expectation.
Obama’s current strategy might not only help him advance toward those goals; it could also assist Democrats in their battles to hold onto their Senate majority and even seize control of the House of Representatives in the 2014 midterm elections.
Obama recently predicted that Nancy Pelosi will return as Speaker in the wake of those elections, and he is also expected to undertake significant fundraising efforts on behalf of his party’s candidates.
Those moments are notable because, as one Democratic strategist who did not want to be named told The Hill, Obama “has never really been known to be a strong party guy.”
There are no guarantees that the Democrats can buck precedent, which indicates that the party of a second-term president usually loses seats in midterm elections. But success would give him the legislative muscle to finish his eight White House years in a sprint. It would also banish memories of the painful losses incurred in Obama’s first midterms in 2010.
“2010 was bruising for him and he doesn’t want to go down that path again,” said Martin Sweet, a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University. “His effectiveness rides on making some conversions on some of these House seats.”
Republicans, meanwhile, say that Obama’s current mix of confidence and combativeness might come back to hurt him. In particular, they accuse him of putting campaigning before governing.
“The risk of an endless campaign is neglecting the task of running government,” GOP strategist Ken Lundberg told The Hill. “All the affiliated rhetoric, brow-beating and posturing will produce very few tangible results because it alienates potential allies and energizes political adversaries.”
Ron Bonjean, who served as communications director to Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, argued that Democrats and the media have tended to overestimate the sincerity of Obama’s professed desire for bipartisanship.
“I think the president thrives by not having deals,” he said. “He thinks that living in a partisan-battlefield environment will help the Democrats. They are riding high from the last election. If they achieve bipartisan deals, it take those issues away from Democrats.”
There is another, simpler part of Obama’s current approach, however. The president sometimes has a thinly veiled impatience with the ways of Washington in general and the idiosyncrasies of Congress in particular. Supporters and independent observers note that, temperamentally, he is more suited to the stump than to legislative sausage-making.
“He’s not going to sit down and, on a small scale, wine and dine members of Congress,” Sweet said. “He’s much stronger in these mid-sized rallies.”
A former administration official told a similar story.
“It works for him,” the official said. “It’s classic Obama, feeding off the crowds, with his sleeves rolled. It’s the guy from 2008 that people loved so much.”