WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is leading in the polls, particularly in swing states. The economy is, in some ways, recovering impressively from the mega-meltdown of 2008-09. The Republican Party is poised to nominate Mitt Romney, a man with no public political skills who wants to install an elevator in his garage and has an uncanny ability to generate fear and loathing among many of his party's most ardent grassroots activists.
Yet Obama, who essentially kicked off the general election season on Tuesday at an annual gathering of newspaper editors, was a grim-faced candidate. No "Happy Warrior" was he. His hair growing grayer by the day, his lips tight and jaw clenched, the president seemed to be looking forward to the campaign with all the joy of a teen combatant in "The Hunger Games."
There are things in the air and in the papers that surely put him in a bad mood. The Supreme Court, the experts say, may decide to upend his signature domestic initiative, the Affordable Care Act. The front pages offer stories about a lavish spending spree in Nevada by leaders of his General Services Administration and his in-house top gun on health care policy supposedly going to war against -- and riding roughshod over -- the head of the Food and Drug Administration. Also, the president's NCAA bracket turned out to be very wrong.
But the main reason for Obama's grim mood Tuesday was the political strategy that he and his aides have decided to pursue. The president did not much bother to tout his administration's achievements. Instead and not by accident, he spent most of his podium time crying havoc about the GOP candidates, the Republican House budget and even what he regards as the danger the Supreme Court will act irresponsibly on health care.
While the American Society of Newspaper Editors are not a jovial bunch, at least not at 12:30 in the afternoon, there was little if anything for them to laugh at in Obama's 40 minutes or so before them -- 25 for his dour speech and another 15 for equally bleak answers to questions.
The president's appearance, also not by accident, took place on the same day as three GOP primaries -- in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia -- that seem likely to give Romney a big boost and to lead party insiders and pundits alike to declare the GOP race all but over.
If Romney wins Wisconsin, as he is poised to do, he will have done it with a man at his side -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) -- whose new federal budget proposal the Obama team sees as key, if not the key, to the president's reelection chances next November. With its continued tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, its voucherization of Medicare and its deep cuts in all non-defense discretionary spending, the Ryan budget presents an "unambiguously clear" choice among competing visions for the country, the president said.
This campaign, Obama said, is "the make-or-break moment for the middle class" in 21st century America.
As he often does, the president chose to deal with gritty political issues -- what to do about the deficit, spending, taxes and entitlements such as Medicare -- by widening the lens. This election, he said, will be nothing less than a choice between the "thinly veiled social Darwinism" of a hard-right GOP, whose agenda makes "the Contract With America look like the New Deal," and his own vision of American community -- a vision that used to be shared by a long line of Republican presidents, including Lincoln, Eisenhower, Nixon, Bushes One and Two, and even Reagan in his good moments.
You know that something is happening in American politics when a Democratic president praises Nixon and George W. Bush, two GOP leaders whom the Republicans themselves never mention.
The president, political advisers David Axelrod, Jim Messina, David Plouffe and the rest of the brain trust have clearly decided that today's GOP, as embodied by Ryan and Romney (who called the Ryan budget "marvelous"), are so far out of the mainstream that a reelection campaign based primarily on attack is the best way to go.
It may be so, but playing the attacker himself -- nasty, hectoring, even apocalyptic -- doesn't naturally suit the president. As a former constitutional law professor, he may also feel uncomfortable questioning the bona fides of the Supreme Court.
He's a warrior, but didn't seem happy about it.