CHANDLER, Ariz. — 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. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows signs of increasing optimism that the economy will improve with 37 percent saying it will get better in the next year, the highest level in that poll in more than a year.
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 he 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.
In a stop later in the day in Arizona, Obama stripped off his jacket and joked about the warm weather to a crowd at an Intel chip plant, seeming to revel in being out on the stump.
He even mixed it up with the state's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, confronting her over how she depicted him in her book. Reporters witnessed the two in intense conversation after Brewer greeted Obama on the tarmac at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, and Brewer later said it was over a passage in her book in which she describes Obama as lecturing her over immigration.
A White House official said Obama, who opposes Arizona's controversial immigration law, responded to an invitation from Brewer to meet with her by telling the governor he'd be glad to, but adding that Brewer had inaccurately described their last meeting in her book.
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 when 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.
Underscoring the political subtext, four of the five states he will visit will hold Republican presidential caucuses or primaries within the next month. The two caucuses — in Nevada and Colorado — come within two weeks of his visit.
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.
AP Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta in Washington and Associated Press writer Cristina Silva in Las Vegas contributed to this report.