By Ian Swanson - 01/17/10 12:26 AM EST
President Barack Obama this month has shifted from the measured tones he used throughout 2009 to push his policies, reviving his fiery campaign rhetoric that helped him win the White House.
Obama's trip to Massachusetts on Sunday comes as he and his administration have adopted a more confrontational political tone.
“Let me tell you something, if Republicans want to campaign against something by standing up for the status quo and for insurance companies over families and businesses, that is a fight I want to have,” Obama said Thursday.
The remarks to a House Democratic caucus were intended to rouse lawmakers increasingly worried about losing dozens of seats in November.
The announcement Friday that Obama will take a trip to Massachusetts to try to save Democrat Martha Coakley’s faltering Senate campaign shows the president is pulling out the stops to keep 60 Democratic seats in the upper chamber. If Coakley falls to Republican Scott Brown, it could have a devastating impact on Obama’s agenda for the rest of the year.
“I think the president’s blood is up,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “He tends to be a dispassionate person, but if the conditions are right he comes out of his corner ready to fight.”
Obama, who energized crowds with cries of "Fired up! Ready to Go!" in 2008, has been criticized by some liberals for not being more passionate in his policymaking.
Obama’s polling numbers have fallen dramatically over the last year. A Gallup poll this week found 56 percent of respondents disapproving of Obama’s handling of the economy, which will likely be the number one issue for voters this fall.
The brutal healthcare debate has clearly hurt the president; 60 percent in the Gallup poll said they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the debate.
At the same time, Obama remains popular with his base, and his overall approval numbers in daily tracking polls by Gallup and Rasmussen on Saturday were just a hair under 50 percent.
That suggests Obama can still be a force in Massachusetts and other states. And with Coakley down in some polls, Obama is trying to rally the Democratic base in a deep-blue state.
“I think there’s nothing like a near-death experience to rouse the spirit of combat and the administration has had a lot of those,” said Baker.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The more aggressive political line is also reflected by the op-ed written by Obama political adviser David Axelrod in Friday’s Washington Post. Axelrod rebutted President George W. Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove, who had criticized congressional Democrats for running up the nation’s debt.
It was a shameless claim, wrote Axelrod, given the fact that Obama inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit from Bush. He said the “breathtaking scope of this irresponsibility” could only be put in perspective by noting that the Bush administration had added more debt in its eight years in the White House than all of the previous White Houses combined.
Besides welcoming a fight over healthcare with Republicans, Obama in separate remarks, charged the GOP with locking arms with bank lobbyists to prevent necessary financial reforms. He took a swipe at Wall Street too, calling their bonuses “obscene” and promising to “recover every single dime” owed to a public that bailed out the industry last fall.
The rhetoric is backed up with actions. Obama proposed a fee on financial firms that was announced as Wall Street banks prepare to offer huge bonuses. The largest firms could owe as much as $2 billion under the fee’s proposed structure.
Obama was hardly a political wallflower in 2009.
His White House was involved in several campaigns in 2009 and worked aggressively to clear the field for Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand’s (D) 2010 election bid in New York. Administration officials also have been active in New York's gubernatorial race.
Still, the trip to Massachusetts stands in contrast with previous decisions.
Obama declined to get involved in a Senate run-off in Georgia after his 2008 election, and he also stayed clear of an early 2009 House race in New York.
Baker argues that while Obama’s “default mode” is cerebral, that masks a willingness to fight when his political life depends on it. It’s something that was seen on the campaign trail in 2008, when Obama cut Rev. Jeremiah Wright loose. Obama did so after the preacher, who officiated Obama’s wedding, made controversial remarks on race.
“Behind all of that calm and composure is someone who understands there comes a time when you have to take off the gloves,” said Baker.