Earlier this week, President Obama was in Western Africa, visiting two different countries and speaking to the African Union. It was the first time a sitting president traveled to Ethiopia and addressed the union, calling on the continent’s nations to defend the freedom of speech, expand democracy and empower women. Additionally, he blasted candidates like Donald Trump for “outrageous” political statements. In recent weeks, Obama has reverted back to the man from the blockbuster 2008 campaign: a charismatic community organizer who came across as fresh and honest, straying away from the overly polished politician persona. He’s become emotional in public appearances, whether talking about his daughters growing up or the ever-present issue of mass gun violence in America. He’s made a surprise visit to Capitol Hill, critically discussed rape in this country, and is still working to change policy.
All of this comes as Obama’s time in office dwindles. In 16 months, a new president will be elected. While that makes the nation’s first African-American president a lame duck, his response is a welcome change from the leader who has felt robotic in times of foreign and domestic crises. Over the course of his two terms, it appeared, Obama lost his spirit.
I would come across as naive to say that I didn’t expect that of him. But I did hope he would be different, and his character on the 2008 campaign trail influenced expectation.
In the winter of 2007, I met then-Sen. Obama. I was an intern at The Boston Globe and the editorial board was interviewing candidates for paper’s endorsement. I remember Hillary Clinton’s motorcade streaming into the driveway, narrowly missing me as I sleepily walked home for the day. I recall John McCain standing at the beginning of the newsroom with the top editors, looking out at a sea of employees. And I remember watching Obama weave between desks to shake every person’s hand. Including mine.
That gesture stood out from the conduct of the others. It felt like he was trying to win over everyone, not just the influential. However, not long into his presidency, a new Obama emerged. This one made boilerplate remarks and seemed unable to control bipartisan squabbling. When catastrophe occurred and the world looked for his response, he appeared removed and dispassionate. All the while, his approval ratings ebbed and flowed, reaching disapproving lows in the fall of 2013 and remaining there until recently.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that he has a 48 percent approval rating, the highest figure since the summer of 2013. As Obama’s demeanor changed, so has his perception. The two other times Obama hit similar figures was when he started his first term and won reelection in 2012. Of course, after an election approval ratings are high (in January of 2009, his was at 65 percent). And it’s no surprise that during campaigns Obama was on his best behavior. But it appears that man has returned, despite the fact that he’s said he is ready to leave office in 2016.
“There’s a level of comfort that comes with having been in the role for that length of time, and he’s past his political life, as far as elections go,” David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama, told The New York Times. “That may give him a greater sense of comfort in revealing feelings and being emotive.”
Even if he’s trying to alter how the history books are penned, I welcome the change. While I can’t forgive his treatment of the press or forget mistakes he’s made, it’s nice to see Obama get his groove back. Just a few examples of how Obama has transformed back into the man we recognize from his early presidential days...
1. He's Emotional About His Daughters
He admitted to afternoons of sadness thinking about his daughters getting ready to begin college. “I start tearing up in the middle of the day,” Obama said at an Easter prayer breakfast this year. Malia Obama is 17 and preparing to apply for colleges this year, while Sasha is 14 and next in line.
2. He's Delivered Powerful Eulogies...
On June 6, Obama delivered the eulogy for Beau Biden, son to Vice President Joe Biden. The president choked back tears as he told the crowd, “Beau Biden was an original. He was a good man, a man of character, a man who loved deeply and was loved in return.”
3. ... And Hasn't Held Back
On June 26, Obama gave the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people fatally shot inside Emanuel AME Church. “This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace,” the president said as he spoke of Pinckney, a man he knew personally. He paused, and repeated the words “amazing grace” before singing.
4. He's Made Gun Control Personal
Days earlier, when Obama spoke about the incident, he became emotional several times when issuing his 14th speech on mass gun violence in America. He even noted that he no longer needs to be tight-lipped on these issues.
“Until the investigation is complete, I’m necessarily constrained when talking about the details of the case,” said Obama. “But I don't need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise.”
5. He's Been More Human Off-Camera
It hasn’t all been for the camera. Obama reportedly veered from his normal policy-focused script for a more personal option when pleading with Democrats on Capitol Hill to support his trade agenda recently.
Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who listened to the president in a conference room adjacent to the Capitol, told The New York Times that the president was “as emotional as I’ve ever seen him get” when explaining to his party he was hurt they would accept that he would agree to a deal that would undercut the middle class and workers.
6. He's Visiting Prisons And Commuting Sentences
In July, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal correctional facility. While still in office, he’s trying to garner support for a bipartisan overhaul of the criminal justice system. His trip to El Reno, Okla., came days after he commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent offenders and called for legislation that would overhaul sentencing rules by the end of 2015. He's changed more sentences than the last four presidents combined.
7. He's Been Blunt About Bill Cosby
The day before his trip, Obama answered questions about revoking Bill Cosby’s Presidential Medal of Freedom following rape allegations against the comedian. While he said, “There is no precedent for revoking a medal,” and that he made it “a policy not to comment,” he paused and spoke out against rape.
“If you give a woman or a man, for that matter, without his or her knowledge, a drug, and then have sex with that person without consent, that’s rape,” said Obama. “And this country, any civilized country, should have no tolerance for rape.”
Here's to 2008 Obama. We met him, we fell in love him, we voted for him — and, finally, he's in the White House.
Images: Getty Images, Giphy (1)