He warned students and teachers that the fragility of families, the easy violence of guns, and a threatened education system are failing Chicago’s South Side, where he once worked as a community organizer and began his family.
Change “requires us reflecting internally about who we are and what we believe in,” he told the rows of uniformed students lining the blue cinder-block walls in bleachers. “And facing up to our own fears and insecurities, and admitting when we’re wrong.”
More than he ever did in his first term, Obama is describing the country as he believes it should be, not the one it has been for much of the past decade. It is an inspirational technique of the community organizer and of the upstart national candidate he once was.
But Obama has always been good with words and moments. It’s the hard partisan work inside Washington that has so often vexed him. After returning Monday from a golf outing on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, Obama faces a schedule largely free of public events this week, leaving time for the private political work that is key to this kind of governing.
How to bring his skills in the first area to bear on the second is the central question occupying Obama and his senior staff, who hope to harness his post-election political freedom on behalf of a domestic agenda still broadly unpopular among Republicans in a divided Congress.
He is threatening executive action to confront such issues as climate change, a greater concern to the young voters who make up his base than it is to House Republicans. His vast former campaign organization also is mobilizing to fight outside the Beltway for a political agenda whose fate will be determined inside it.
“He no longer feels to me like a prime minister,” said John D. Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely associated with the administration, and a White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration. “He now understands the full range and power of the presidency to get things done.”
Podesta managed Obama’s 2008 post-election transition, and he has traced the president’s arc in office as a sympathetic observer and sometime adviser.
But he and many other Democrats were critical of Obama’s response to losing control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, when a chastened president sought to accommodate an empowered Republican Party. Since then, Obama has seemed at times lost down the rabbit hole of partisan battles that he had once pledged to end.
Some of the Washington work he will face this week and beyond centers on the unresolved fiscal and political questions about the role of government in promoting economic and social change.