WASHINGTON — An old Hawaiian proverb — "A coral reef hardens into land" — about the power of incremental change may resonate with President Barack Obama as he returns Tuesday from his island getaway to begin work on the second half of his four-year term.
The most obvious challenge the president will face is a divided Congress in which Republicans control the House of Representatives. They can block initiatives that Obama might have sought on immigration, the environment and civil rights or undo some of his health care mandates and investigate many aspects of his administration. They also could work with the Democratic president to find spending cuts that his own party didn't want to make.
But the new Congress is just part of what's on the president's plate.
He'll use the next few weeks to shape a State of the Union address that reflects Democrats' diminished power, his 2012 re-election strategy and help for faltering jobs and housing sectors still struggling to come back after the deep recession. A couple of weeks later, his administration will unveil its proposed 2012 budget. He's also expected to roll out a series of staff changes in coming weeks while hosting visits from three key foreign leaders and trying to keep his options open on holding terrorism detainees and bringing them to trial.
"As the president prepares to confront a crowded agenda, creating jobs and strengthening the economy are the president's top priorities, and he remains committed to working in bipartisan fashion to move forward on them," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.
The State of the Union speech could offer early details as to how Obama will address the nation's debt — and whether his renewed commitment to bipartisan compromise is mere rhetoric or a prelude to tackling comprehensive changes to tax policy or Social Security that may be initially unpopular but improve fiscal stability.
"That is his most important chance in the next two years to define the rest of his presidential term, and may also have an impact on whether this is his only presidential term or the first of two," said William Galston, an expert on governance at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.
"While there are some signs that the president has been thinking through and preparing for years three and four that will be very different from years one and two, it's not at all clear how far he's prepared to go in the direction of a major strategic shift," Galston said.
"The 2011 State of the Union is the president's best chance to take advantage of the fleeting chance to govern before presidential politics trumps everything else."
Obama also will host visits this month from at least three key foreign leaders: France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari and China's Hu Jintao.
Sarkozy is heading the G-8 and G-20 groups of world economic powers. Pakistan is important to U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and the war in Afghanistan, but Zardari's government is in crisis. North Korea and the economy will be discussed during Hu's visit, which will include a state dinner, the third of Obama's presidency.
U.S. voters are more attuned to domestic politics, but presidents must constantly tend to foreign policy and diplomacy, and Obama needs to catch up for time lost while he was campaigning last year for fellow Democrats, said Douglas Paal, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former national security aide in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
Obama "basically punted foreign policy for a year to focus on getting his people elected," Paal said, with the exception of a post-election trip to Asia. "That bumps everybody into the first part of the next year, so you tend to have a bunching up of overdue visits," Paal said.
The president and his lawyers also are grappling with the complex issues that surround how to close the overseas detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and what to do with the remaining detainees in the face of congressional resistance.
In coming weeks, Obama could show some of his cards on questions ranging from how he'll justify indefinite detentions of some detainees to how much he'll push back against congressional efforts to constrain transfers of detainees to facilities in the United States or trials in civilian courts.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
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