After Obama’s populist-sounding jobs speech, it’s understandable that a lot of us are asking, “Where has this Obama been?” He exuded verve, not wonk; he pointed fingers at the GOP (though he still insists on running against “Congress,” making Dems seem as obstreperous as Repubs); and he hit the right angry-but-controlled tone. As Howard Fineman writes, “Friends and foes alike had to wonder watching him tonight: where has that Barack Obama been?”

Actually, that Barack Obama has been popping up from time to time all along—so fleetingly, though, that we keep asking the same question as if for the first time, in a sort of liberal’s version of 50 First Dates.

In July, when Obama talked tough at a press conference on the debt ceiling, TPM headlined a post “Where Has This Obama Been?”; a Huffpost commenter echoed, “Where has this Obama been all this time? Love it! I’m so damn in!”

In April, when Obama gave a rousing speech calling out Paul Ryan’s Medicare-killing budget, most people I knew, including me, asked WHTOB? After his 2010 State of the Union address, in which Obama called out the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, the question rang out; and two days later, after POTUS publicly whip-lashed Republicans at their own House retreat, here was Salon: “Democratic operatives around Washington watching it had pretty much the same reaction: ‘Where the hell has this guy been?’ ”

If we keep repeating the question, it’s not only because we suffer American amnesia. It’s also because, after long bouts of kowtowing to the right, Obama has kept us on edge, ready to give up on him, until, at a minute before midnight, he comes out swinging. We’re so relieved to see the man we thought we voted for that we can only welcome him back, all sins forgotten.

Invariably, though, the pattern re-emerges: his combative tone dissipates and his principled policies melt into Republican-lite mush.

Yet what may be different this time is that, after allowing the Tea Party to bring us to the brink of default and now to a probable double-dip recession, Obama faces an existential crisis. Not existential in the newer sense of existing at all (as in, his presidency faces an existential threat), but in the older, Sartre-like sense of “you are what you do.” Does he choose to act boldly and escape his comfort zone (as he did in capturing bin Laden), or does he decide to stay stuck, letting his habitual conciliatory role and his foes control him?

There’s much in his jobs bill that suggests the latter: more than half of the $447 billion package are in tax cuts, which don’t create jobs; and his proposed Medicare and Medicaid cuts are, presumably, on top of those the Congressional “super-committee” will surely make.

But a couple things bode for the better. Rather than wait for Congress to negotiate a tortured bill, as he’s so often done, he (and his staff) produced it themselves. And, he says, he’s going to “every corner of the country” to push for it.

He started Friday in Richmond, Virginia, in Eric Cantor’s district, no less, and he made sounds about “aging bridges on I-95.” But he was only dimly channeling Chris Matthews, who’s been on a tear lately, challenging Democrats to make the need for jobs in red states specific. “Jam it at the Republican congressmen by showing pictures of the bridges in their districts that these damn members won’t support!” he told Representative Keith Ellison, when the Minnesota Democrat talked about campaigning for his jobs program in Democrat-friendly big cities.

“Why don’t you go into suburban areas and talk about the schools going to hell in those areas or the roads going to hell, and get those congressman to—put some heat up their butts!” Matthews demanded. “Why don’t you guys go on the attack instead of playing defense?”

If Obama vigorously endorsed or, better, led such an attack, maybe we could finally stop asking where he’s been.