President Barack Obama's polling numbers are so gloomy these days that, if I were him, I'd feel like smoking again. But, considering what he was up against four years ago, he's accustomed to facing challenges.
He has plenty as he begins his re-election bid. His poll numbers look like an underwater mortgage: His disapprovals are higher than his approvals. His base is dispirited. Independents sound disappointed. His conservative opposition is so energized that the Republican hopefuls are falling over each other like a seven-way caged wrestling match for a chance to run against him.
Yet the 2008 candidate of "hope" and "change" still has reason to hope, and he's making changes, beginning with himself.
A couple of bright spots in his otherwise grim approval ratings over the past year offer a clue as to what kind of campaign Team Obama plans to run. The first occurred in May after the president's Seal Team Six mission killed Osama bin Laden. That spike lasted a month before persistent economic headaches wiped out his gain in the polls.
The second surge came in October and continued at least to mid-December. That's when a Washington Post-ABC poll put him at 49 percent, his highest approval rating since March, not including his bin Laden bump.
What happened in-between? He toughened up. A new, feisty, rolled-up-shirtsleeves populism erupted in Obama's politics in September as he barnstormed the country for his jobs bill. The bill failed to pass Congress in one piece, but it gave Obama an issue with which he could to draw bright lines of contrast with his congressional opposition on ideas to help the nation's workers.
His shift came after a brutally partisan summertime battle over the usually mundane matter of raising the nation's credit limit. The House Republican majority, provoked by its new tea party caucus, refused to raise the debt limit, despite a threatened default. Obama failed to strike a grand bargain with Speaker John Boehner. It would have balanced cuts to social programs with a tax increase on the rich. In the end, there were only cuts and a budget-cutting "supercommitee" that failed to reach agreement.
Democrats complained that Obama had given away too much. But polls indicated that the Grand Old Party's leaders paid a price, too. When voters were asked which party takes more extreme positions, pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center told NPR, "we had a two-to-one margin naming the Republicans over the Democrats. Very surprising."
Yet it was not too surprising in light of President Bill Clinton's similar popularity boost after his standoff with Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich led to two government shutdowns in the 1990s. Presidents tend to have an edge in such congressional disputes. This president appears to be growing more comfortable with his.
He found a new voice by December when he channeled Theodore Roosevelt in Osawatomie, Kan., where T.R. in 1910 proclaimed a progressive "new nationalism." He promoted such then-controversial ideas as unemployment insurance, child labor laws, the eight-hour workday, minimum wages for women and a federal income tax. He lost his presidential race, but most Americans take those ideas for granted today, despite conservative efforts to roll back the clock.
The pushback Roosevelt received from Gilded Age conservatives strikingly resembles Obama's battles with today's political right over national health care, another Roosevelt idea. Both men were called "socialist" and worse. But voters want candidates who are on their side. When you're that candidate and opponents resort to calling you names, it only confirms that you're having an impact.
Sources inside Team Obama say we can expect to see Obama run against Congress this year like Harry Truman railed against his own "do-nothing Congress." Why not? Congress is a safe target. Like the media, they have way lower approval ratings than the president does.
But the nation also needs to a grand vision to go with Obama's Teddy Roosevelt rhetoric. We're not in 1910 anymore. Today's anxious voters are looking not only for a short-term rescue but a way to bring back our old prosperity in a new global century.
Clarence Page is a columnist and member of the editorial board at the Chicago Tribune. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.