Obama steps up his game

President Obama held a town-hall-style event in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, yesterday, and the change of scenery seemed to do him some good. Jonathan Cohn noted, “It looks like President Obama really has found his inner Harry Truman,” and if so, it comes not a moment too soon.

The video of the event is online and worth watching, but a few things jumped out at me. It was encouraging, for example, to see the president continue to press the line that our politics is broken, while laying out specific measures — payroll tax break, infrastructure investment, etc. — that would help the economy. I’d prefer a more ambitious approach, but at least this shows Obama’s focus is where it should be.

When the discussion turned to health care, the president played a little rhetorical game I hadn’t heard before. In discussing the Affordable Care Act, he noted that some call it “Obamacare,” adding, “Let me tell you, I have no problem with folks saying ‘Obama cares.’ I do care. If the other side wants to be the folks who don’t care, that’s fine with me.”

He also slammed his GOP presidential rivals for rejecting a 10-to-1 deal on debt reduction, suggested Mitt Romney has a case of “amnesia” when it comes to health care, and said, “[O]ne of the most effective ways that we could help the economy is making sure that we’re not seeing more teacher layoffs.” Congress disagrees, but Obama’s right.

But what struck me as especially important is when the president took the time to defend government itself.

“You’ll hear a lot of folks, by the way, say that government is broken. Well, government and politics are two different things. Government is our troops who are fighting on our behalf in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s government. Government are also those FEMA folks when there’s a flood or a drought or some emergency who come out and are helping people out. That’s government. Government is Social Security. Government are teachers in the classroom. Government are our firefighters and our police officers, and the folks who keep our water clean and our air clean to breathe, and our agricultural workers. And when you go to a national park, and those folks in the hats — that’s government.

“So don’t be confused — as frustrated as you are about politics, don’t buy into this notion that somehow government is what’s holding us back…. [D]on’t buy into this whole notion that somehow government doesn’t do us any good; government is what protects us. The government is what built the Interstate Highway System. Government is what sent a man to the Moon. It’s what invested in the research and development that created innovations all across this country.”

For all the talk about President Obama’s reluctance to establish progressive “stories,” this is a fundamentally liberal message, identifying government activism as a force of social good and national progress. It’s the core of the Democratic Party’s message, and Obama appeared only too pleased to state it explicitly.

Before opening the floor to questions, the president explained, “I want everybody to understand that I’m not here just to enjoy the nice weather. I’m here to enlist you in a fight. We are fighting for the future of our country. And that is a fight that we are going to win. That is a promise that I make with your help.”

The more Obama makes appearances like this one, the more likely it is he’ll see supporters eager to join that fight.