Upbeat and on a roll, Obama showing some swagger

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) ? If President Barack Obama is showing some swagger, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

His job approval ratings point to an uptick. The Navy SEAL unit that killed Osama bin Laden just pulled off a daring rescue that Obama authorized in Somalia. He’s fresh off a big speech before Congress, and the Republicans who want his job are criticizing each other probably more than they are Obama.

As he hits the road for three days of travel to important political states, Obama is on a roll.

Feeling good, he even tried his hand at a bit of public crooning a few days ago, channeling the Rev. Al Green to a fundraising crowd at the Apollo Theater in New York and securing the highest of pop culture distinction: a ring tone.

It could be a fleeting moment for Obama. While the economy is improving with indicators trending positively, unemployment remains high at 8.5 percent and international debt crises and tensions could unravel the gains.

For now, Obama is not hiding his upbeat demeanor.

Arriving in Iowa on Wednesday, he jogged, grinning, to a rope line of a couple of dozen supporters. He later expressed nostalgia for the days in 2007 when he was campaigning in Iowa and struck a defiant tone against congressional Republicans that was even sharper than the repudiation he offered Tuesday night in his State of the Union address.

“Our economy is getting stronger, and we’ve come too far to turn back now,” he told workers and guests at a conveyor manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids. Speaking of Republicans, he said, “Their philosophy is simple: We’re better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”

“Well, I am here to say they are wrong,” he said.

The spring in his step comes as polls show slight improvement in his job approval ratings. A Washington Post/ABC poll last week had him evenly split 48-48 on that question. A Gallup tracking poll has him even in recent surveys, compared with a few months ago where more disapproved than approved

On the road through Friday, Obama will bask in the afterglow of his prime-time address and use the power of the presidency to compete for headlines with leading GOP White House hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich as they knock heads ahead of the Jan. 31 Florida primary. He will try to promote a populist message of income equality that Obama’s team believes can resonate with voters.

If 2011 began with overtures to Republicans and big business, 2012 is about operating on his own terms. He will challenge Congress to pass his initiatives, some of which he has tried before without success. For now, Obama is liberated. The thrust and parrying of governing has not picked up in Washington yet.

The road gives him an opportunity to goad congressional Republicans, believing he has been able to sway public opinion with his presidential megaphone before. He cites Washington’s decision to extend, for two months, a payroll tax cut for workers. He’s now seeking to extend it for the full year, and while there’s little doubt that Congress eventually will agree, Obama prodded anyway.

“Your voices convinced Congress to extend this middle-class tax cut before,” he said. “You remember there was little resistance there last year. I need your help to get them to do it again. Tell Congress to pass this tax cut without drama, without delay. No soap operas. Just get it done.”

Political events are going his way as well.

Just as he stepped up his call for a minimum 30 percent tax rate for millionaires, Romney released his tax returns under pressure, revealing that he paid an effective tax rate of 14 percent. That not only underscored Romney’s wealth, it also provided an argument for altering the nation’s tax laws, a central element of Obama’s re-election campaign.

Gingrich on Wednesday helped keep the focus on Romney’s wealth, saying that the wealthy businessman lived in “a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatically $20 million income for no work.”

Romney and Gingrich have been forced to target each other in the GOP presidential contest, freeing Obama from the fray. For instance, Romney has ads in Florida and Nevada blaming the housing crisis on Gingrich and concludes that nothing would make Obama happier than Gingrich winning the nomination.