N.Y. Times columnist Maureen Dowd notes that “only a week ago, Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post‘s editorial page editor, had written that President Obama did not seem happy in his job, that he projected ‘weariness and duty’ instead of the ‘jauntiness’ of F.D.R. and J.F.K.

“But Tuesday, when the health-reform bill was signed, ‘the president was joyous, and that infectious smile so sparsely offered over the last two years lit up the East Room. Many Democratic lawmakers and Obama supporters were frustrated at the president’s failure to show more spine earlier. As Representative Louise Slaughter told the Times in February, ‘I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more toughness here or there.’

“Until now, Obama has gotten irritated at those who cast Washington affairs in Manichean terms of strength or weakness and red or blue. He wanted to reason, to compromise, to float in his ivory tower.

“But at long last, when push came to shove, he shoved (and let Nancy push). He treated politics not as an intellectual exercise, but a political one. He realized that sometimes you can’t rise above it. You have to sink down into it. You have to stop being cerebral and get your hands dirty. You can fight fear with power.

“The Chicago pol in the Oval has had to learn one of the great American truths: You’ve got to slap the bully in the face. He’s a consensus-building ‘warrior,’ David Axelrod boasted to Charlie Rose.

“The president, who has been reading Edmund Morris‘s ‘The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,’ has always spoken with a soft voice. Now he’s wielded the big stick.

What provoked Obama’s turn-around from ivory-tower floater to bully-slapper? Some have pointed to an outburst by Sen. Al Franken following a presidential health-care briefing in early February.

“Goddamn it, what’s the deal here?” Franken asked Obama adviser David Axelrod. “You’re talking platitudes, and we have to go home and defend ourselves. We’re getting the crap kicked out of us!”

Dowd’s column notes that Franken, “who had blown up at Axelrod after Obama held a televised session with Senate Democrats in February, arguing that the president wasn’t fighting hard enough or strategizing well enough, [[has] sent Axelrod a congratulatory note after the health bill passed.

“‘You’re welcome,’ Franken wrote. He added an asterisk: ‘Joke. I used to be in comedy.'”