At times, it seems like Barack Obama has time-traveled back to last summer when he was simply a Democrat running for the White House. Only now, he's the president facing a more complicated objective and opponent as he campaigns to overhaul the nation's costly and convoluted health care system.
Yet, there he was last Wednesday, jetting to this Virginia town to talk to supermarket workers from a platform between the bakery and deli. Earlier, he bounded onto a flag-draped stage at a North Carolina high school to cheers from an adoring throng of two thousand. At both sites, he made remarks, took questions and shook hands with fans.
He also recently appeared at an interest group forum, AARP, toured the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and lent his starpower to Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey at political events — typical stops when he was the Democratic nominee.
Obama's pitch has been the same everywhere: Congress must quickly pass health care legislation; this is not "socialized medicine" that Republicans decry; people who have health care will not lose it.
At each stop, Obama is his usual wonky professor yet charming everyman self, clad in his usual dark suit and tie, fielding the usual offbeat questions with ease and playing by his usual rules: "I'm just going to call on people as they raise their hand. I'll go girl, boy, girl, boy so that people don't think I'm biased."
Just like his 2008 campaign — but not.
Six months into his presidency, Obama's campaign-trail approach to curry favor with the public seems virtually unchanged from a year ago when he ran against Republican nominee John McCain. And virtually every state Obama visits now was competitive in that election.
But, these days, Obama's mission is different, arguably more challenging.
It used to be winning the White House with one opponent, McCain and the Republicans, in an environment that tilted strongly toward Democratic victory.
Now, Obama's objective is winning passage of his top domestic priority, battling both conservative-to-moderate Democrats whose concerns over the legislation have slowed progress and Republican critics who have ratcheted up attacks and made compromise more difficult. He's maneuvering in a complex political landscape in which the public generally is supportive of health care reform but has increasing doubts about Obama's ability to pull it off.
Even so, Obama is approaching this challenge as he did the one in 2008 — at least in style, for top advisers recognize that Obama himself is his presidency's best asset.
Yet, the strategy also comes with a risk of overexposure, a diluting of the Obama "brand" advisers are so careful to protect. And, scores of politicians have had difficulty translating campaign success into governing success, which doesn't bode well for Obama.
So far, it seems that Obama's postelection campaigning has helped convert his popularity into support for his policies, at least initially. He successfully lobbied for passage of the economic stimulus only to watch the public grow skeptical of its effects. He scored a major victory with House passage of climate-and-energy legislation but the bill didn't go as far as he had wanted, and its fate is less certain in the Senate.
Whether Obama's approach works on health care remains to be seen.
The president won't get votes by the full House and Senate this summer as he sought but there's an excellent chance he will get bills through all but one of the five House and Senate committees with jurisdiction, before Congress leaves on a month long break. That would be an enormous step that eluded plenty of presidents, including Bill Clinton.
That said, a spate of polls show that Obama's personal popularity, though still high, has slipped and public confidence in him on issues has fallen since he took office in January.
On health care specifically, polls show widespread support for reform generally and even for various specific ideas but also increasing skepticism of the president's handling of the issue. A recent AP-GfK poll shows that 50 percent of the public approves of Obama on the issue and 43 percent don't approve, but that figure was a big jump from April when 28 percent disapproved. The latest nonpartisan Pew Research Center survey found similar results.
Given such volatility, the charismatic campaigner again has turned to his specialty — courting the public personally.
As Obama campaigns these days, the perks and trappings of the presidency are clear, from the cushy Air Force One travel to the presidential seal on his ever-present podium to the traditional "Hail to the Chief" score at his events. Otherwise, Obama largely holds true to his classic campaign style in visits to familiar territory.
Surrounded by strawberries, peaches and grapes at a Kroger supermarket on the Virginia-Tennessee border, the president opened Wednesday afternoon with the obligatory recognition of local officials and recollection of his last Bristol visit during the campaign.
He joked about his extraordinary situation as president — both with groceries and health care.
"This is the first time I've been in a grocery store in a while," he said to laughter. "They don't let me do my own shopping, but I miss it. So I may pick up some fruit on the way out." (He, did, indeed snag a piece later.)
He drew more chuckles when he added: "As president, I've got this doctor who follows me everywhere, seriously, and an ambulance. And so, you know, I don't want to pretend like I don't have super-duper care." He quipped: "But I don't think that lasts after I leave!"
Joking aside, Obama spent most of the hour providing a detailed explanation of his health care proposal, mixing academic language that showed his expertise with folksy, regular-guy phrases that appeared to resonate with workers sitting before him.
He added a dash of trademark optimism — "America is the greatest nation on Earth. We can solve this problem." — and ended the event with a plea: "We can get it done with your support" — an echo of his campaign's "Yes we can" mantra.