It looks as though a stranger has started impersonating Barack Obama. The president is breaking free from the aloof, unemotional, tightly disciplined persona that many of his critics complained about during the past four years. Now he's more of an engaged, aggressive, and tough-minded leader who seems eager to take on his critics and is showing flashes of anger now and then.
Since his solid re-election victory November 6, this "new Obama" has been deftly playing the many roles that define the modern presidency, including commander in chief, comforter in chief, and economist in chief.
All this was clearly in evidence this week in various ways, such as when he traveled to New York City Thursday to inspect the damage from Hurricane Sandy.
He comforted the victims, in public and in private, and promised as much federal help as possible to get people back on their feet. And he set the perfect tone, urging everyone to pull together. "During difficult times like this, we're reminded that we're bound together, and we have to look out for each other," Obama said. On a practical level, he named Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, former housing commissioner for New York City, as the federal "point person" in dealing with recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
Obama advisers say he was always confident, empathetic, and proactive, but now he lets his feelings show more than in the past. Some Democratic strategists say he is acting as if a burden has been lifted from his shoulders, and he feels liberated.
This side of Obama was evident at his news conference Wednesday. His temper, usually under wraps, flared into view when he criticized Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The two Republicans have faulted Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for controversial comments she made in an attempt to explain the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. McCain, who ran against Obama in 2008, and Graham argue that there was a huge security breakdown that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Obama called their remarks "outrageous" and said if they wanted to pick a fight, they should take him on directly, not focus on Rice.
Also at the news conference, Obama served notice that he will be tougher in negotiating with congressional Republicans than he's been in the past. Regarding the budget, he said he will keep his pledge to end tax breaks for the rich and continue them for the middle class.
On Saturday, Obama takes the world stage when he begins an Asian trip that will include visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Aides say his goal is to deepen U.S. relationships with these countries to bolster the economy, increase trade, and strengthen national security.
In retrospect, there was at least one clear sign that Obama would feel liberated in a second term. It happened March 26 at an international conference in Seoul. Obama met with then-Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev and asked for some patience on the issue of European missile defense. In remarks picked up on an open microphone, Obama said he would have more latitude in a second term when he wouldn't have to face the voters again, and urged the Russians to "give me space." Those remarks now seem like a harbinger.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook and Twitter.