WASHINGTON — — Is the spring back in President Barack Obama's step?
On Tuesday, with audience members shouting "fired up!" and not a protester in sight, Obama signed a sweeping higher education funding overhaul into law along with the last portion of his health care bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Dr. Jill Biden joined him on stage for what amounted to a Democratic love feast.
Obama had flown back from a surprise trip to Kabul a day earlier - and in a "Today" show appearance that aired Tuesday morning challenged President Hamid Karzai to apply the "fierce urgency of now" to cleaning up Afghanistan.
Over the weekend, Obama made more than a dozen recess appointments, signaling his willingness to challenge Congress. Later this week, after speeches on energy and workplace flexibility, the president will visit Maine and North Carolina, two swing states - getting out of the White House bubble and back into the campaign mode that he prefers.
It might be too soon to tell whether the conventional wisdom - that Obama changed the course of his presidency with the passage of his health care bill - turns out to be correct. But with its completion, finalized Tuesday, the president has finally turned to other things and is allowing himself to enjoy the moment of triumph, albeit in his understated way.
At the bill signing in Alexandria, Va., Obama heralded the "two major victories in one week," on health care and education, choosing to dwell on the latter.
"What has gotten overlooked amid all the hoopla, all the drama of the last week is what happened in education - when a great battle pitching the interests of the banks and the financial institutions against the interests of the students finally came to an end," Obama said. "This week, we can rightly say the foundation on which America's foundation will be built is stronger than it was one year ago."
"Yes, we can!" a man in the audience hollered.
The ebullient mood was evident even before Obama arrived. As Democratic lawmakers filed in, audience members leapt to their feet at the sight of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, giving an ovation of the kind typically reserved for the president. "Yay, Nancy!" one man shouted. Pelosi clapped back at the crowd as camera flashes popped. When Obama later singled out Pelosi, calling her "amazing," the crowd jumped to its feet again. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, got a standing ovation, too.
The bill Obama signed into law overhauls higher-education financing, doubling funding for Pell grants, allowing students to borrow directly from the government and easing payment structures once they graduate. Loan repayments will be capped at 10 percent of a graduate's salary, down from the current 15 percent, starting in 2014. The bill, Obama said, will save the country $68 billion that would otherwise have been spent on "the middle men" -financial institutions that previously managed the loans.
"That's real money," Obama said.
Obama set the bill signing at Northern Virginia Community College - in a politically important corner of a nearby swing state, and at a school where Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is a teacher.
She introduced Obama with an ambitious goal. "By 2020, we want America once again to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world," she said.
"Thank you, Dr. Biden, for that outstanding introduction - and for putting up with Joe," Obama said.