“He finally said something,” the man in the elevator said to no one in particular as he turned away from the little screen that entertains us with traffic, weather and news as we ride up and down between floors.

I figured “he” was President Barack Obama, but I got to my floor too quickly to see for sure.

As it turned out, what he said “as commander in chief and on behalf of a grateful nation” was “welcome home.”

Obama marked the official end to the U.S. military mission in Iraq on Wednesday with soldiers returning to Fort Bragg, N.C. — purely by coincidence, a potential battleground state in the upcoming election.

In the old days, North Carolina was the sucker punch in Democratic politics. You’d go to the Research Triangle and think, “This is a state Democrats could win,” and then invest money and lose and remind yourself that North Carolina was the state that sent the legendary Jesse Helms to the Senate five times. Helms was a guy famous for injecting race — actually racism — into politics. He was the sponsor of the “White Hands” ad in 1990, which vilified his opponent for his support of affirmative action.

But North Carolina is different these days. Helms is gone (he died four months before the 2008 election), and Obama was at his campaign-style best in welcoming home the troops. He walked the line between praising the troops without praising a war he opposed and promised to end; between celebrating the great battles without mentioning the weapons of mass destruction that we were fighting about and never found.

To borrow a Bill Clinton staple, he felt the pain of those in the crowd: “There have been missed birthday parties and graduations. There are bills to pay and jobs that have to be juggled with picking up the kids. For every soldier that goes on patrol, there are the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters praying that they come back.”

While Republicans are enmeshed in an increasingly nasty battle among those who hope to replace the president, Obama — in his trips outside of Washington — is showing flashes of the style and substance that excited both the party and the nation in the last campaign. Having told the other troops — the activists who will be his own ground force in 2012 — that we will have to “grind” out this campaign, the president on these occasions manages to give hope, even for a moment, that the election could be more than that.

My old friend Paul Tully, the late political organizer who taught a generation of us how to do politics, used to have what he called a “48-hour rule.” He tried, and mostly succeeded, never to spend more than 48 hours in Washington, because he knew how easy it was to lose touch with what mattered once you dove into the political swamp.

When I watch and listen to Obama on the stump, I remember Tully’s 48-hour rule. If only a president could govern from somewhere else. If only this president could hold on to his message, his spirit, his optimism, his ebullience — all of the things that were on display at Fort Bragg — while he grinds it out in Washington. At a time when the country so desperately needs that sense of hope and optimism, it often seems — particularly in those awful, hostile, intensely political news conferences — that the president has lost his.

Watching him in Fort Bragg, it almost seemed possible that the president could get back his soul. In leaving Washington, in pressing into the crowd, in praising the troops and reaching out to them, there were moments when it seemed like the troops were not the only ones who were coming home. So was President Obama.

Welcome home, Mr. President. Here’s hoping that Obama, like the returning troops, finds his way back.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.