On the shore of the placid Lake Harriet on Friday, President Barack Obama looked like he wanted to stick around. Most comfortable in campaign mode, outside the White House bubble he resents, far from congressional obstruction and close to the voters who once adored him, Obama tried to rekindle the campaign spirit.
Obama had traveled to the heartland for ice cream and speechifying, with his poll numbers in the dumps and his governing agenda even more troubled. It was a blast from the past. “Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice,” Obama said in Minneapolis, harkening back to his 2008 campaign theme.
That Obama has grown frustrated by Congress is nothing new, but the fact that he is wearing it on his sleeve is. In raging against a dysfunctional legislative branch and taunting congressional Republicans to “sue me,” Obama is conceding what had long been obvious: His days of getting legislation through this Congress are over. He’s started to call for “conversations” instead of legislation, most recently over efforts to expand paid family leave, and he is rolling out executive actions on everything from LGBT nondiscrimination to immigration reform because Congress won’t act.
For Obama, “hope” has always been the portal back to the history-making 2008 campaign, an ideal he struggled to revive in his re-election campaign. His most recent swing has tried to light the fire once again, complete with the Springsteen soundtrack and his familiar rally-the-troops line, “Don’t boo, vote.” But 5½ years into his presidency, there is little hope left for change anytime soon: the fall’s midterm races appear destined to maintain the status quo for Democrats, or worse.
Since his re-election, Obama has launched his “final campaigns” to sell the Affordable Care Act and boost vulnerable Democrats this fall. But the campaign launched last week in Minnesota is different. It is for his legacy. For the handful of largely symbolic executive actions he hopes will place him on the right side of history. To try to isolate him from the nightmare that has become Washington, stanch his hemorrhaging poll numbers and reconnect him with a skeptical public.
On Tuesday in Washington, having returned to the bubble, he hit the themes again in a speech at the Georgetown waterfront. “Sometimes in our culture right now we just get cynical about stuff, and we just assume things can’t change because nothing seems to change in this town,” Obama said. “But that’s not true. It can change as long as everybody gets activated, as long as people still feel hopeful and we don’t fall prey to cynicism.”
But that plea for hope has some cynicism of its own.
As he spends the summer heat returning to his roots, calling on Americans to embrace hope in campaign-style events across the country, Obama is also dialing up his own frustration with a political system that is by all accounts broken. “I’m finding lately that I just want to say what’s on my mind,” Obama said in Minnesota, turning his taxpayer-funded event into a broadside against Republican obstructionism. “So far this year, Republicans in Congress have blocked or voted down every single serious idea to strengthen the middle class.”
“They don’t do anything except block me,” Obama complained. “And call me names.”