Thus, to a very real degree, 2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear. For many Democrats, this is just fine and dandy, for they believe that in the Romney-Republican agenda there is plenty to be scared of. For others in the party in both politics and business, however, the new Obama posture is cause for concern. From the gay-marriage decision to the onslaught on Bain, they see the president and his team as coming across as too divisive, too conventional, and too nakedly political, putting at risk Obama’s greatest asset—his likability—with the voters in the middle of the electorate who will ultimately decide his fate.
Whichever side is right, one thing is undeniable. For anyone still starry-eyed about Obama, the months ahead will provide a bracing revelation about what he truly is: not a savior, not a saint, not a man above the fray, but a brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler determined to do what is necessary to stay in power—in other words, a politician.
For a sitting president to be a narrow favorite over his challenger at the start of the general election is on its face unremarkable. But there was no guarantee things would be even this rosy last August, when Obama hit his low ebb. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer recalls the moment he learned that Gallup had Obama’s approval rating tumbling to 38 percent. “In your darkest moments, you had to wonder if we’d reached a point, like Bush did in the summer of 2005, that you can’t come back from,” he says. “Had we crossed some line where people were saying, ‘We’re just tired of listening to you’?”
The previous eight months had been hell for Obama. After the self-described “shellacking” his party suffered in the 2010 midterm elections, the president had sought to find a way to work with Republicans, to reestablish the post-partisan métier that animated his election. “For the first part of the year, he played what was largely an inside game,” says Obama’s longtime counselor David Axelrod. “The ideas being (a) maybe we can reason with the Republicans and come to some rational conclusions, and (b) maybe people really wanted to see cooperation. But that obviously didn’t work.”
Not just obviously, but screamingly so, as evinced by the reckless Republican brinkmanship over the debt ceiling and the collapse of the grand bargain on deficit reduction that Obama labored long to fashion with John Boehner. By the time the president took off for vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, recalls a senior White House official, “he was as frustrated as I’ve ever seen him.” Most irritating to Obama was the portrayal of him, on the right and left alike, as a terminally weak leader. “We found ourselves in the worst possible situation,” says Pfeiffer, “in which Republicans and some Democrats were using the same talking points to describe the president. That’s a moment of great political peril.”
Even before heading away on holiday, Obama had arrived at a decision to reboot his presidency again. “One thing about him is that he always salvages something from defeat,” Axelrod observes. “He saw we were up against a nihilistic minority; if they were willing to plunge the United States into default, you had to conclude that reason’s not gonna prevail. And we had a fragile economic situation that was exacerbated by their antics. So, for reasons of politics and the economy, he needed to come out firing after Labor Day, lay out an aggressive plan, and take his case to the country. His conclusion was that if we’re gonna move the ball forward, we’re gonna do it by galvanizing the American people, not by trying to cut deals in quiet rooms.”
Obama’s first chance to test-drive his new approach was the speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress soon after returning from the Vineyard. The address was intended to plump for a jobs bill designed, at the president’s specific instruction, without regard for its chances of passage. “I want to put forward what I think the right thing to do is,” Obama told his team. “I don’t want this to be a legislative compromise. We’re not going to negotiate with ourselves. We’re not interested in the possible but in what should be.”
For Obama, the speech proved to be a turning point, politically and personally. “From that moment on, there’s been a sense of liberation about him,” says a confidant of the president. “He’d had enough.”
A cynic might say that the liberation Obama feels is the freedom from, you know, actually governing. And there would be some truth to that. But no one on either side of the partisan aisle disputes that it was Obama’s more pugnacious posture that led to his most important legislative victory of this year: the $144 billion extension of the payroll-tax cut and unemployment benefits that passed in February. For Republicans, the bill’s enactment was an embarrassing defeat, one that put them in the absurd position of first being against a tax cut and then having to buckle in the face of the public pressure fomented by the White House. For Obama, it was a tangible sign of the reclamation of his mojo, the effects of which are still apparent. “The way the Republicans caved on the student-loan issue suggests they have acquired a fear of the president’s capacity to put them in a bad place,” argues Pfeiffer. “In the eyes of the country, he has come to look more like the guy who won in 2008 and less like the image that was being portrayed in August 2011.”