The emergence of this more pugnacious Obama has heartened Democrats, especially the most liberal ones, who spent the past few months dejected by what they saw as the president’s unwillingness to engage his opponents in political combat.
“We don’t see it as confrontation; we see it as leadership,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “We see the president exerting strong leadership to make the case to the country that everything we had to listen to during the debt debate was wrong.”
The president’s problems, even within his own party, remain formidable; only 58 percent of Democrats in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll believe that he will be reelected. Many supporters remain skeptical of his tendency to seek compromise with Republicans, and recently he angered some black supporters by urging them to stop complaining.
Still, in recent weeks, Obama has begun to blunt some of the criticism among Democrats that he is not up for the fight.
“The guy is mad,” said Peter Fenn, a longtime Democratic strategist. “I’d be mad, too. We went four months on the debt-ceiling nonsense. What positive result came of that? Zip.”
The new attack strategy is rooted in the political reality that Obama is 13 months from Election Day and faces a tough road. The poll shows that 61 percent of Americans disapprove of the way he is handling the economy.
Indeed, the only good news for Obama relates to his jobs plan and his Republican opposition. An even higher percentage of poll respondents, about 76 percent, say they disapprove of the way Republicans in Congress are handling the economy. Given that dubious advantage, the president may have few options other than to attack.
Obama used a Labor Day speech in Detroit to launch his new offensive against the GOP opposition. With him on Air Force One that day was Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who gave Obama the text of a rousing speech delivered by Harry S. Truman on Labor Day 1948, also in Detroit. Truman was another deeply unpopular Democratic president in the midst of an economic recession; he won another term in 1948 by attacking the Republicans, earning the nickname “Give ’Em Hell Harry.”
A month later, other parallels are emerging. Facing sharp criticism from Democrats who say he capitulated to Republicans during the summer’s acrimonious debt-ceiling negotiations, Obama has embarked on a nationwide barnstorming tour to promote his plan to create jobs and try to reverse his ebbing political fortunes.
Senior administration officials said the president will continue his jobs tour through year’s end in a calculated effort to force Republicans to negotiate or be painted as a party unwilling to address the economic crisis.
The president’s jobs plan is one remaining bright spot for him. A narrow majority in the poll supports the package. Nearly six in 10 say Obama’s plan would help improve the unemployment situation.
Obama has begun to frame the 2012 contest as a referendum on values. At a fundraiser in California late last month, he mocked Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a leading contender for the GOP nomination, whose state has been ravaged by drought and wildfires, for not believing in the science of climate change. And in a speech on Saturday, Obama blasted the Republican presidential candidates for failing to defend a gay American solider in Iraq who was booed while asking a question via video during a GOP debate.
“We don’t believe in a small America,” Obama told a crowd of 3,300 at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Washington. “We don’t believe . . . it’s okay for a stage full of political leaders — one of whom could end up being the president of the United States — being silent when an American soldier is booed. . . . You want to be commander in chief? You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform.”
Obama drew a standing ovation that lasted longer than a minute, a remarkable turnaround for a president who himself was booed during a fundraiser in New York last spring when he said his views on same-sex marriage were still evolving.
“President Obama did an amazing job of thoroughly weaving together the narrative of his accomplishments and the pivotal implications of having another person in that Oval Office,” said Fred Sainz, a Human Rights Campaign spokesman.
The president also has drawn a values contrast with Republicans over how to pay for his jobs plan, which features a “Buffett rule” that would eliminate some tax loopholes for people earning more than $200,000 a year. Republicans have labeled Obama’s approach “class warfare,” a term the president has embraced — with a twist.
“You’re already hearing the Republicans in Congress dusting off the old talking points,” Obama told New York donors two weeks ago. “You know what? If asking a billionaire to pay the same rate as a plumber or a teacher makes me a warrior for the middle class, I wear that charge as a badge of honor.”
Neera Tanden, a former Obama administration official, said the president tried to position himself as the “adult in the room” during the debt fight, remaining above the partisan fray in hopes of striking a “grand bargain.” The strategy collapsed after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) balked under pressure from the tea party and the White House agreed to cut spending by $900 billion without raising taxes.
“If you are the adult in the room as they move farther and farther right, you are not pulling back against them,” said Tanden, now the chief operating officer at the liberal Center for American Progress. “You have to come up with a strategy to meet the times. . . . The most important thing for the president now is to demonstrate leadership and vision. The stronger, feistier tone helps him do that.”
Darlene Ewing, chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party, said that she was “royally [upset] when Obama caved” on the Bush tax cuts.
“I was really excited when he finally said, ‘Okay, that’s not the way it’s going to be,’ ” Ewing said this week. “I understand if you don’t want to add to the divisiveness. But it’s like mud-wrestling with a snake — you’re not going to win.”
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