By GLENN THRUSH
December 19, 2014
Two senior White House staffers stumbled out of the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago into the boozy, early-morning aftermath of President Obama’s Nov. 6, 2012, reelection victory and ran smack into a sober reporter. “It’s over,” one of the wobbly, relieved aides said. “He never has to do this again.”
It’s taken Obama – who spuriously predicted the 2012 election would break the “fever” of partisan gridlock – two miserable years to approach the level of presidential liberation he believes he earned that night. Yet there was always something slightly off about the idea that Obama would do better without a campaign in his future. The truth, according to current and former aides, is that the absence of a presidential election – the natural Obama habitat – actually contributed to the ennui and frustration that has hallmarked most of his second term.
Obama’s turnaround in recent weeks – he’s seized the offensive with a series of controversial executive actions and challenges to leaders in his own party on the budget — can be attributed to a fundamental change in his political mindset, according to current and former aides. He’s gone from thinking of himself as a sitting (lame) duck, they tell me, to a president diving headlong into what amounts to a final campaign – this one to preserve his legacy, add policy points to the scoreboard, and – last but definitely not least – to inflict the same kind of punishment on his newly empowered Republican enemies, who delighted in tormenting him when he was on top.
The pivot isn’t necessarily about embracing the Real Barack Obama (that’s always been a pretty elusive persona) or even about aspiring to the Clintonian ideal of a second-term president leveraging executive power into political muscle. It’s not a matter of superficially emulating a campaign, as he’s done fecklessly in the past, by hitting the road for another round of low-impact speeches or Steve Kroft sit-downs. It’s a campaign between Obama’s ears — a competitor rediscovering his love of competition, the refocusing of a sedentary, atrophied presidency through the lens of a dynamic campaign – and winning.
“He needs to run, to compete – or more to the point, he needs someone to run against,” a former top Obama adviser told me.
He’s got that now, in a Republican-controlled Capitol Hill. Obama, a political counterpuncher who often needs a slap in the face to wake up, got a gut-shot in November. The Democrats’ staggering loss in the midterms – like his disastrous performance in the first presidential debate against Mitt Romney in 2012 – seems to have jolted him to the realization that he’ll have to act boldly to preserve what he’d assumed was a settled legacy. (The Supreme Court’s decision to scrutinize the funding mechanism of the Affordable Care Act, in particular, has sent a shudder through the West Wing and provided an unexpected challenge from another hostile branch of government.)
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