WASHINGTON -- Most presidents kick off their re-election campaigns with a speech on the campaign trail somewhere, or from the Oval Office. President Obama did it in a novel, telling and shrewdly chosen place: in the middle of an address to Congress.
If people were wondering what template Barack Obama would choose for his re-election effort -- some had suggested FDR in 1936 or Ronald Reagan in 1984 -- we now have an answer:
Harry Truman in 1948, the "Give 'Em Hell Harry" who challenged Congress to tackle with the post-war nation's problems and castigated the Republican Congress for its obstinate failure to do so.
Addresses to joint sessions of Congress are supposed to be august, stately and somber affairs, but the president turned it into a raucous and lively mixture of a campaign stump speech and a college-style debate on the floor of the British House of Commons.
His tactical strategy is clear. The only political institution less popular than he is at this time is the Congress. An astounding, almost pre-revolutionary 82 percent of the American people think that the Congress is doing a bad job of dealing with the nation's problems.
That's far worse than his own job-approval ratings, which were languishing in the low 40s.
By putting forward a simply-named, to-the-point bill - the American Jobs Act - and by challenging Congress to pass it and pass it now, Obama hopes to create a win-win: either the Congress accedes or, as President Truman did in 1948, he can run against the "do nothing" Congress.
But there was more politics to the speech than that. Time and again he reached out to the GOP and to conservative -- or at least right-leaning -- independents. He agreed flat out that Medicare spending needed to be cut. He said that regulations needed to be trimmed. Much of the $450 billion bill consists of tax cuts.
This is no accident. Obama desperately needs to rebuild his appeal to independent suburban voters, and to show that he was and is willing to meet the GOP half way. Again the idea to work for a win-win: either he gets the results, or he can say that he tried -- moved far -- and that the "do nothing" Congress did nothing.
This was a startling, feisty, combative and, in a way, commanding president that has rarely been seen on the stage in Washington. Something about being in the lion's den -- and staring straight at the GOP leadership -- seemed to invigorate him.
There are widespread doubts that the Congress will act. There is deep disappointment that the president's ideas and actions so far have not done much good to revive the economy. Poll after poll shows that the American public doubts his efficacy as a leader.
Liberals are entitled to wonder if his passionate defense of labor organizing rights, worker safety laws and the like were a case of protesting too much. But he put a passion into his remarks that he has rarely shown in public in his presidency, or even on the campaign trail.
Friends and foes alike had to wonder watching him tonight: where has that Barack Obama been? The other question, of course, is: Why did it take so long for "Give 'Em Hell, Barry" (as Chris Matthews christened him) to appear? And the last question: Is it too late, either to do anything for the economy, or for his own chances?
Follow Howard Fineman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/howardfineman
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