Most presidents win a new term by winning an election. Barack Obama just got his by losing one.
Washington has experienced all manner of political aftershocks in the days following the special election on Tuesday in Massachusetts, in which Scott Brown became the first Republican to be elected to represent the Bay State in the Senate in nearly 40 years. But no shock has been as vivid to watch as Obama.
After the immediate dust settled on what Brown's election may, or may not, mean for his health care reform plan, Obama didn't mope, or whine, or really complain in any way. Rather, he just simply seemed to pivot into this new political reality, and it didn't feel so much a coldly calculated political turn as a swivel that just appeared to shake something loose within Obama. It's almost as if the president was just waiting, perhaps hoping, for something to blow him this way all along.
This is not to say Obama had fallen into a presidential rut. Instead it seems quite possible to imagine that he had become so enmeshed in accomplishing what he felt he needed to do that he had forgotten for a good long while to poke his head up and really take a look around. This is not a knock on Obama. It may be a function of having come so far, so fast, but as we've heard from across the political spectrum that a year ago we were truly "at the brink," staring down at the real potential of long, deep recession becoming a depression.
Whether you agree with the actions he would eventually take, or not, I think Obama simply was looking to take the best, perhaps only realistic, advice he could find at the time to keep that from happening. I firmly share the mindset of filmmaker Michael Moore, that even when I may disagree with various Obama policies, I remain convinced the president is "a good and decent man." In the midst of this serious crisis atmosphere, Obama appears to have put his head down to plow ahead to carry out the long list of tasks he wanted to accomplish to improve the nation's situation.
That's more or less the earnestness with which Obama carried on his job until last Tuesday. He seems to have been so busy that he missed the new appetite for populism that fueled Brown's startling election. Rather than let it rattle him, Obama in the days since almost seems to exhibit a sense of relief that he could — should — shed the serious crisis mode which marked his first year, and shift both the tone and substance of his presidency.
In just the few days since Brown's victory, Obama announced a fresh proposal to impose new fees on big banks he had been accused of being too cozy with just days earlier. He brought the reform-minded Paul Volcker closer into his circle at the apparent expense of the more Wall Street-friendly Tim Geithner. The president ended his week of change by angrily denouncing a nearly treasonous Supreme Court decision to allow nearly unfettered corporate influence on American politics.
Even as his nomination of Republican Ben Bernanke to continue in his post atop the Federal Reserve began to unravel last week at the hands of his fellow Democrats, it's not entirely clear how much Obama seems to care. Just weeks ago, Obama could have been expected to use his weekly White House address to come to Bernanke's rescue, or at least talk about the economic recovery in a way that would have given his Bush-era nominee some cover. The president, instead, chose to stay on the populist road by continuing his attack on that sweeping Supreme Court decision. Obama's thinking may well now concur with the Senate's prime Bernanke opponent, the liberal independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who believes Bernanke's defeat would give Obama "a golden opportunity to nominate someone who will move the Fed in a new direction and put an end to the Fed’s relationship with big banks and Wall Street."
Time will tell as to exactly where this new direction will carry Obama. But for the time being, the president appears genuinely happy to leave behind him the path of his first year in office and embrace new political realities and their potential.
Obama will soon deliver his State of the Union address, but feels like it could be his second Inaugural.