Obama Act 2: 4 more years, 6 vital issues
Washington • The curtain is about to rise on the second act of Barack Obama's presidency. On Monday, before an expected inaugural crowd of roughly 500,000 people, the president will trumpet his vision for a bold returnof the American economy. This president and the nation he leads have lived through too much tumult to expect the next four years to be free of unforeseen challenges and a few plot twists.
Still, the dawning of Obama's second term is a chance to reflect on what he has accomplished, what he dreams of doing in the months to come and what political insiders believe is actually achievable.
"I intend to carry out the agenda that I campaigned on an agenda for new jobs, new opportunity, and new security for the middle class," the president said in the last news conference of his first term. "We are poised for a good year if we make smart decisions and sound investments and as long as Washington politics don't get in the way of America's progress."
But what Obama may see as obstructionism, Republicans in Utah see as a chance to rein in the powers of an executive they disagree with, and they plan to be particularly obstinate when it comes to federal spending and the nation's ever-growing $16 trillion debt.
"Now we'll get to see if the president is really interested in being a leader or if he's just a good campaigner," GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch said in Utah this month. "If he's a leader, he'll acknowledge reality and come to the table willing to cut spending and reform our entitlements. If he's only interested in being the Campaigner in Chief, he'll continue to call for tax hikes."
The president said he's ready to talk about spending, but he also will argue for smaller cuts than Republicans want and new tax revenue that they will fight.
Rep. Jim Matheson, a conservative Democrat from Utah, said this struggle, which has dominated much of Obama's first term, is here to stay.
"The fiscal issues are not going to go away," he said. "I think debt is a big part of what the president's second term is going to be about."
How Obama handles that debate is likely to shift. Upon first taking office, the president spoke of changing the culture in Washington and ending gridlock. Now, after four years of relentless political skirmishes, he's taken a tougher negotiating stance with Congress.
The question remains whether it will help him achieve his vision to remake the economy or lead to passage of legislation on his other top priorities, which range from revamping the nation's immigration laws to curtailing gun violence. Here's a look at some of the key issues that Obama is likely to confront, in addition to the economy.
Immigration • Obama's second term may offer the perfect opening to tackle immigration reform in a comprehensive way, and he'll likely get a helping hand from Republicans who had stridently opposed such efforts during the past decade.
In fact, after Congress failed to pass the Dream Act, Obama had to turn to using his executive powers to help stop the deportation of young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally. This term, all signs point to bipartisan collaboration on wider legislation.
With demographic shifts showing more Latino voting power, observers suggest Republicans must accept some type of reform on immigration laws to clear a path to citizenship, or at least legal status, for the 11 million to 15 million illegal immigrants in the country already.
"Now, because of the election and because of the demographics, the hard-liners in the GOP have little or no incentive to resist this reform," said Dan Kowalski, an immigration lawyer and editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin, an online news site.
While not ready to accept an amnesty program, Utah's Republican senators, Hatch and Mike Lee, have already begun work on potential bills to ease some immigrants' access to legal residency.
Gun control • Just last week, Obama launched an initiative on controlling gun violence: a multi-pronged plan that is likely in for a grueling fight in the first few months of his second term.
"In the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality," Obama said before signing several directives aimed at doing what he can without Congress.
But to bar high-capacity magazines, mandate background checks for all gun sales and prohibit assault rifles, it'll take legislation, and that's where Obama is likely to spend considerable political capital, fighting the likes of the National Rifle Association.
Entrenched Republicans aren't about to waiver on those issues and some NRA-friendly Democrats, like Matheson, are unlikely to side with the president. Obama may prevail on some initiatives such as stricter background checks, as the NRA has signaled support but others may stall.
Energy and environment • With the coming departure of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Obama has a new chance to guide policy on the environment and public lands, though no one is expecting he can push any major legislation through a deeply divided Congress.
It could be a repeat, in some ways, of his first term.
Obama's first drive for climate-change legislation a cap-and-trade effort flailed even when Democrats held both chambers and was dead on arrival once Republicans took over the House. An Interior Department effort to bypass Congress on designating new wilderness, through a policy called "wild lands," ended up being curtailed after significant blowback.
"It just showed inexperience that the administration had of how you make big things happen," said Frank Maisano, a senior principal at the law firm of Washington-based Bracewell & Giuliani who consults on energy and environmental issues. "That has hindered their ability to do anything like that down the road."
Instead, Obama and Interior turned to using regulatory power to push through environmental changes, a move he's likely to repeat during the next four years.
One thing Maisano believes Obama will do in his second term: Allow more on- and off-shore drilling, something Republicans have made hay of the past four years.
"He just has to do that, because he's not a dummy," Maisano said. "He's going to get on the train in the direction it's moving."
Health care • Obama's victory in the U.S. Supreme Court and the election ended Republicans' persistent attempts to eliminate his health-reform program, dubbed Obamacare, and now his administration has four years to implement the program. Its success, or failure, will play a major part in this president's legacy.
State leaders face big decisions in 2013. They must agree to manage a new online insurance portal for people who don't get coverage through their job, or let the feds do it. And they must accept or reject an expansion of Medicaid to cover low-income adults. Both the portal and Medicaid expansion kick in at the start of 2014, as do consumer protections that stop insurance companies from denying coverage or charging more because of a health factor.
So far Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has continued negotiating with the Obama administration over the insurance portal, making repeated calls for state flexibility. Utah already created its own insurance exchange, known as Avenue H, but the feds say it does not yet meet the new law's requirements.
Herbert has been silent on the Medicaid expansion, though Nevada and Arizona have accepted the program along with the millions in federal money and restrictions that come with it.
The foreign perspective • Obama ended the Iraq War in his first term and plans in 2014 to oversee the conclusion of the war in Afghanistan, this nation's longest conflict. But that won't allow the U.S. to pivot its attention away from the Middle East.
The nuclear ambitions of Iran loom over the region and, in reaction, Israel has increasingly threatened a military response. Egypt continues to try to remake itself after its Arab Spring revolution. Civil war rages on in Syria.
Second-term presidents often turn increased attention to foreign affairs, particularly when the race to pick their successors heats up. Beyond the Middle East, Obama has tried to position himself as the first "Pacific president," creating stronger financial and diplomatic ties in the Asian world, particularly with China.