President Barack Obama was losing his voice, and for him that was a good sign.
“Even though my voice is getting kind of hoarse, I’ve still got a spring in my step,” Obama said in Cleveland at the end of a 48-hour marathon campaign swing late last month. “We’re fighting for the future. I’ve come to Ohio today to ask you for your vote.”
It was during that two-day, multi-battleground state sprint when, for the first time, the president showed he was willing to fight for his re-election. He had approached much of the campaign against Republican Mitt Romney with a sense of near-contempt for his opponent as though he could defeat him without much struggle, a posture that verged on arrogance.
At no point was that more vivid than during the first debate, when the president risked losing a second term with a somnolent 90-minute performance that left his backers dumbstruck and gave Romney’s supporters the energy they’d been lacking. After that night, aides said, Obama was smacked in the face with the potential for loss and it jolted him from his stasis.
A hoarse voice has often been the byproduct of his struggle for political survival. It showed in 2008 when he clinched the Iowa caucuses and again when he won enough delegates in the North Carolina and Indiana primaries to cement the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Now, two weeks before the close of his final campaign for elective office, Obama knew he could lose and he was striving to win. He wanted to make extra stops to meet voters away from the rallies and demanded of his staff that every minute on Air Force One be filled with calls -- to volunteers, to black DJ’s, to local press. It showed in his voice.
The electorate will decide tonight if he mustered the determination too late to beat Romney. Yet, from that two-day swing onward, there’s been a noticeable change.
Voters, whether at a frigid morning rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, or shaking hands with Obama after midnight at the employee cafeteria of the Las Vegas Bellagio hotel, have seen a more determined, passionate, and humbled presidential candidate asking for their vote.
Constance Pitts, an Ohio voter who runs a cleaning business outside Columbus, saw it last week when Obama spoke in Hilliard. The president, who was “distracted” at the first debate, “came alive” at the Nov. 2 fairground rally when he said he would “fight for you and your families every single day as hard as I know how,” she said.
Obama, at the first debate on Oct. 3, won Romney a second look from voters and erased the edge the president had used the summer solidifying. He’s spent the last month in recovery mode.
“I felt really well-rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate,” Obama joked on Oct. 18 at the Al Smith Dinner in New York.
He’s napping no more. Over the last two weeks Obama has crisscrossed the country several times, arriving at hotels as late as 3:30 a.m., trying to shore up last-minute votes and energize his supporters. Whatever down time he would have had has largely been taken up by his administration’s disaster-response efforts since superstorm Sandy.
In addition to his New Jersey visit last week to survey the storm damage, Obama has spent time aboard Air Force One in between campaign events holding conference calls with federal and local officials and receiving briefings from his team.
Still, in the campaign’s waning days, there’s been time for reflection. For Obama, this isn’t just the close of his 2012 bid, it’s also his farewell tour -- marking the end of the improbable journey that began Feb. 10, 2007, on a freezing-cold day in Springfield, Illinois.
As he goes from battleground state to battleground state, time is sort of frozen for the president and his aides. They’re thinking as much about riding out the journey they’ve shared as they are about the destination.
If Obama wins, he’ll have four more years in office and immediately be forced to confront the ultimate budget battle, the so-called fiscal cliff of federal spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect in January unless Congress acts. Failure to produce a long-term debt deal could send the economy into a tailspin and scuttle his second-term legacy. If Obama loses, he’ll have to plot his next career move -- one that for the first time doesn’t include a political campaign.
For now, he’s on the campaign trail. An Obama rally in Lima, Ohio, was his last there as a candidate. His get-out-the-vote calls on Nov. 3 were also his last, and the speech he’s been delivering since last Wednesday is his last closing argument as a candidate.
Aides said he took a hands-on role in crafting the remarks, asking for some of his favorite speeches: the 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention, his 2005 commencement speech at Knox College, the 2007 Iowa Jefferson Jackson dinner speech. He told everyone that this was the last stump speech he’d give as a candidate, and he wanted to make it count.
“Iowa you know me as well as anybody. You’ve seen a lot of me these last six years,” a teary-eyed and hoarse Obama told an estimated 20,000 supporters in Des Moines last night. “I wasn’t this grey when I first showed up in Iowa.”
Iowa isn’t just any battleground state for Obama. It holds special significance as the state where his longshot presidential candidacy was born. He made sure his final event was in Des Moines, standing in front of his old headquarters.
Obama wanted his last set of prepared campaign remarks to track back to themes, tone and message he laid out during his 2008 race. He’s been casting himself as the underdog outsider and the person to unite the country to end the political gridlock that has paralyzed lawmakers.
He acknowledges that the pace of change has been slow yet glosses over his own failings to make good on the pledge to change Washington that he made to voters four years ago.
It’s a tougher sell than in 2008. The nation, while recovering, is still reeling from the worst recession since the Great Depression. Even though the employment picture has improved and the jobless rate has dropped below 8 percent, voters are disappointed.
If they’re looking for change the way they were four years ago, it doesn’t bode well for Obama. No president has been re-elected with a jobless rate above 6 percent since World War II - - with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who won in 1984 with 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day.
While it’s impossible to recapture the magic that accompanied his candidacy four years ago, Obama is trying.
He’s reassembled the 2008 team for the final sprint. Former aide Reggie Love and onetime Press Secretary Robert Gibbs have returned, joining strategist David Axelrod and senior advisers David Plouffe and Valerie Jarrett.
Last weekend, flying into smaller cities, the usual 747 Air Force One was replaced with a 757, which felt more like the old campaign plane. On the larger plane, the president sits up front, sequestered from the press. On this plane, Obama could be seen sitting with his team, chatting and laughing, as in 2008.
“There is a recognition among the president, among the staff who have been closely working for him, that we’re a family,” campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Nov. 3.
Replicating the people and the places that led to his historic win may also have to do with Obama’s superstitious tendencies. He ate steak and potatoes for the third debate because that’s what he ate before the second, when he won. He’ll play basketball today because the one time he didn’t was on the day of the New Hampshire primary -- when he lost.
His aides don’t want to jinx anything either. Some have grown beards, refusing to shave until after Election Day. Before the second debate in New York, Axelrod, Plouffe, speechwriter Jon Favreau and press secretary Jay Carney stumbled upon a diner for dinner and ran into other advisers who also happened to be there. Before the third debate in Florida, the four of them found a diner and called the other advisers to make sure they’d also go -- and sit separately like before.
Superstition may be the best coping mechanism when, by Obama’s own admission, he has little control over his own political fate at this point.
“I’m sort of a prop in the campaign,” he said Nov. 3 in Bristow, Virginia, at a rally with former President Bill Clinton. “The power is not with us anymore,” he said, “because now it’s all up to you.”
The sight of Obama and Clinton together was remarkable considering the bitter feelings from the 2008 primary that lingered for most of Obama’s presidency. When Obama finished speaking, the crowd heard Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” the theme song for the former president’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns. It supplanted Stevie Wonder’s Motown hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” which has been a staple at Obama’s events since 2007.
Stevie Wonder, 62, joined Obama at every event for his final Sunday of campaigning. As Obama closed his remarks at the Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati, he saw that the blind musician had begun to play the keyboards on a side stage.
Wonder was singing, and so was the crowd: “Now I’m wondering if your love’s still strong / Ooh, baby.”
For a minute, Obama was there, on his own higher stage, wearing a childlike grin, swaying to the rhythm and mouthing the words. Then he dove into the rope line to meet a few more voters.