Obama’s willingness to take a more overtly adversarial stance is, in part, a nod to the reality that he’s about to start his second term with solid approval numbers — “Hit now, as hard as you can, because your power starts to die in six, eight months,” according to a top aide to a Senate Republican who has often locked horns with the White House…

“When you add it up, the president’s intentions in the next two years are not to govern well or in a bipartisan way but to maneuver,” said Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s press secretary and a frequent Obama critic. “I think his highest ambition is to defeat Republicans in the midterm election so he can finish his presidency in a flourish.”

But five current and former White House veterans said they see a big change in tone from Obama and a desire to project the toughest possible image to his adversaries.

One of the reasons the president is so determined to stick with Hagel despite criticism of his views on Israel and Iran, according to Obama insiders: It would have looked weak to bail on a second nominee after Susan Rice, Obama’s first choice for secretary of state, withdrew last month under pressure from Republicans.