“Barack Obama’s Back.” That was the three-word verdict from Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., after Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
It sums up, perhaps, a sense among Democrats that the newly confident, revitalized president that they’ve seen in recent weeks should have been the president on the campaign trail before the midterm elections.
“He seems to be relaxed and free,” Takano said. “It’s as if it was the cautious Obama ... in the campaign, up until the midterms. I think he was also being prevailed upon by Senate candidates who were worried.”
Now, "he's saying things that I think generally stir the Democratic base.”
It’s no secret the strategy of congressional Democrats during the midterms generally was to localize races and keep an unpopular Obama as far away from red states as possible. It’s not that Obama didn’t give speeches talking about a middle class economy — it’s that he made the vast majority of those remarks to small clutches of rich people in fancy hotels and mansions to raise money, not on the campaign trail.
It’s a question Democrats have been wrestling with since the blowout midterm elections — shouldn’t they have gone down swinging?
Obama’s friend and No. 2 Senate Democrat Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said he wished this Obama had been on display last year.
“I thought he was stepping up his game in the last two years,” Durbin said after the speech. “I thought his message was spot on. I wish we could have delivered it before the election. It might have had some impact in some races, but we were swamped by Ebola, ISIS and threats of children and drug gangsters on the border, so we didn't get a chance to deliver it.”
Republicans weren’t buying it. GOP leaders universally dismissed Obama’s SOTU agenda as simply more of the same from the president — taxes on the rich, more spending and more government regulations, which they said was soundly rejected by the voters in the fall in a coast-to-coast Republican wave.
And former Mitt Romney campaign adviser Stuart Stevens tweeted out, “So if all this is really popular and works, why didn't POTUS roll it out in fall & campaign with Dem’s?”
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said that in the Senate itself, Democrats last year were hitting on many of the same themes as the president. The Connecticut Democrat pointed to last year's proposed legislation to reduce student loan interest rates. That would've been offset with higher taxes on wealthier taxpayers.
"I don't think it's any secret that Democrats are for ... the rich paying their fair share in order to fund priority expenditures like education," Murphy said.
To be sure, Democrats aren’t all in love with everything the president said. Their party is divided on trade, Iran sanctions and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Keystone XL pipeline and EPA regulations.
A group of Democrats held a press conference the day after the speech specifically to crash the free trade party and slam the idea that new deals with Europe and Asia would result in more jobs, not less, showing the president still has some convincing to do.
“This is about wages, this is about jobs,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., predicting enough Republicans would join Democrats in the House to sink the trade deals.
Vermont independent Bernard Sanders, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, went over to the House side of the Capitol to underscore his opposition.
“I do not believe that American workers should have to compete against people in Vietnam who have a minimum wage of 56 cents an hour,” Sanders said. “I think that that is failed policy.”
"We still want to hear more,” Durbin said separately about the president’s trade plans. “We had our retreat last week and there are just a lot of unanswered questions about the substance.”
Despite the lukewarm reception among Democrats, trade may be the most likely of all of Obama's State of the Union proposals to survive a Republican Congress and reach his desk.
Still, an upbeat — even cocky — Obama, unchained by election concerns, had Democrats feeling good.
After the disastrous midterms, that may be the best he could hope for.
“You know there’s the slogan that the Japanese-American fighting unit during World War II took, where these were guys whose parents were incarcerated, but they nevertheless enlisted and fought, and it was called 'go for broke,’” Takano said. “I think the president is going for broke. He's got nothing to lose.”
Emma Dumain, Humberto Sanchez, Niels Lesniewski and Paul Krawzak contributed to this report. Related: Obama Challenges New GOP Congress in Address Transcript of Obama's State of the Union Address The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.