Obama's buoyant mood contrasts with the tone of much of his presidency.
It's not unusual for presidents to begin to feel liberated at the end of a second term.
Barack Obama is hanging as loose as the pinky and thumb salute of his native Hawaii.
With his White House on a roll and his place in history solidifying by the day after a series of important policy victories, he’s letting Americans see more of the man within.
He’s lit the White House in the rainbow colors of the gay rights movement, dropped the ‘N’ word to discuss race, crooned the Davy Crockett theme to a man with that name and held forth on the recipe for guacamole.
On Thursday in Wisconsin, Obama was riding the wave of last week’s wins on health care, same-sex marriage and trade, trying out a new stump speech that seemed like a victory lap and comparing the bloated GOP primary field to an “actual Hunger Games.”
“The last seven years, shoot, the last seven days, should remind us there is nothing America cannot do, there is nothing we can’t solve,” Obama roared, looking more like the change agent of 2008 than the hangdog president weighed down by the cares of office that he’s been for much of the time since.
Suddenly, as the finish line begins to loom in a crisis-pocked presidency, with unemployment at its lowest level for seven years and with progressive change once more on the march, it’s fun being Barack Obama again.
For many in the White House, this moment of presidential poise peaked when Obama exposed his soul more than ever before with his now-iconic rendition of “Amazing Grace” at a funeral for Charleston massacre victims.
“You could tell he was thinking about whether to do this or not,” Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s closest aides, said at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week.
“And when he did, you just felt this surge of emotion in the room … the weight of history coming out all at once in a way that you don’t ever see.”
“For us it was, you know, that was the person we know, that we see every day and wish the rest of the world could see,” said Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.
Obama’s buoyant mood contrasts with the tone of much of his presidency, when he often adopted a cool and anchored persona, appropriate to times in which many Americans were suffering economically and U.S. troops faced protracted combat abroad and when he himself seemed to suffer setbacks and frustrations.
But last week the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare for a second time and endorsed same-sex marriage nationwide; the White House notched a rare bipartisan victory on trade; and new jobs numbers Thursday confirming that the economy’s improving. The atmosphere around the West Wing has suddenly changed.
It’s not the first time that Obama’s mood has reflected his rising political stock. After winning the vindication of a second term that presidents crave, in 2012, Obama was overcome when talking to young supporters in Chicago.
“I felt that the work that I had done in running for office had come full circle,” Obama said, wiping away a tear as he addressed young campaign workers who mirrored his younger grass-roots community organizer self.
At other times, Obama’s public veneer has cracked at moments of tragedy and emotion, such as the death of his grandmother days before his 2008 election win, the Sandy Hook School massacre in 2012 and his last campaign reelection rally a few months earlier.
He also said recently that he sometimes finds himself tearing up in the middle of the day when he thinks of his daughters Sasha and Malia flying the nest.
It’s not unusual for presidents to begin to feel liberated during the back end of a second term. After the stress of impeachment, Bill Clinton occasionally dipped into self-mockery as a way to connect with the country.
And sometimes, after six years on the job and with no more elections to run, presidents seem finally to have mastered the hardest job in the world. Some of the toughest calls of George W. Bush’s presidency, for instance, came late in his second term when he bucked public opinion and doubled down with a troop surge in Iraq, then mobilized the federal government to take bold and crucial economy-saving measures when the recession struck.
One senior administration official said that Obama views the events of the last few weeks as vindication of his strategy of playing a “long game” politically, of not allowing his White House to become hostage to the demands of the moment or media storms that rage and then die when the next crisis comes along.
“Despite the appetite for doing so, there is very little value in an instant analysis in a democracy,” the official said. “You can evaluate a president based on one year in office but it takes longer.”
He continued, “It is only after a longer look that you can you successfully evaluate somebody’s performance in this job. The job is so big that it is so foolish to gauge progress day by day.”
The latest instant analysis of Obama’s presidency, as revealed by a CNN/ORC poll this week, shows the upswing in the president’s mood matched by his personal approval rating, which has hit 50 percent, its highest point in two years.
While all White House staffs despise media attempts to psychoanalyze the commander in chief, a president’s demeanor is important. It can offer a barometer of the health of a presidency, the spirits of the nation and a leader’s capacity to wield one of the presidency’s most important tools – mobilizing public opinion to lead in times of crisis.
In this way, Franklin Roosevelt’s cheer was an important factor in staving off the darkest days of the Great Depression while Jimmy Carter’s decision to make an “unpleasant” televised address about energy consumption, wearing a cardigan, only worsened a national funk.
In the past, it is Obama who has seemed in a funk. In testing years like 2010 and 2014, when he suffered big losses in mid-term elections, he often came across as terse and preoccupied. While he rarely loses his temper in public, he can seem impatient and condescending with reporters. Obama can also seem self-pitying when complaining about the tactics of Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Even critics in his own Democratic Party have lamented that his disdain for Washington translates into political negligence when it comes to whipping votes in Congress. When he went up to Capitol Hill last month to push his trade bill with lawmakers, some said he made the situation worse.
Republicans are still trying to use that aspect of Obama’s character to argue that there is a need for more dynamic leadership in the Oval Office after 2016.
“The biggest argument I have with this president is, I don’t think he likes being president. I don’t think he likes people,” said Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in New Hampshire on Thursday.
The question now is whether Obama can sustain his current hot streak until the end of his presidency in January 2017. Just the last few days have offered a reminder of crises that could erupt. Recent heightened terror alerts, for instance, have raised fears of the kind of attack that could render the president’s political bounce irrelevant.
And though Obama has high hopes of adding a foreign policy equivalent to his domestic wins last week, with a possible nuclear deal with Iran and the fruition of his opening with Cuba, the rest of his record abroad is checkered at best.
Still, the White House plans to ride its current wave while it can.
“Sometimes when we make progress, it is two steps forward. Every once in a while you experience a breakthrough,” the senior official said.