Four years ago, President Barack Obama used his inaugural address to declare “an end to the petty grievances, and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Now as he inaugurates a second term, Obama faces a political climate even more riven by partisan divisions. And they pose sizable hurdles to any success he might hope for in a second term, including an aggressive call for overhauling the nation’s tax and immigration laws and an emerging fight to tighten gun regulations.
The honeymoon will be brief.
Obama’s nominees for several top Cabinet posts face confirmation fights. His outgoing secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has been summoned by Congress to answer questions about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, and will appear just two days after Obama’s ceremonial swearing-in at the Capitol.
At the same time, Republicans in the House of Representatives have threatened to shut down the federal government if a vote to raise the debt ceiling is not accompanied by steep spending cuts – one of several looming fiscal fights that could set the tone for the entire second term.
“The fiscal situation is going to constrain the president every which way he turns,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan in his second term. “The trouble is you can’t so poison the atmosphere on the fiscal stuff that it drains whatever political capital you have to do your other priorities.”
Obama has pledged to not negotiate with Republicans who want to use the debt ceiling vote as an opportunity to curtail federal spending, arguing at a press conference this week that the results of the November election show that voters agree with him that spending cuts should be accompanied by tax increases.
Republicans argue that voters also elected them to lead the House.
"I don’t think you can hide behind the mandate of re-election in a split government scenario, and certainly that’s a view widely held by House Republicans," said Phil Musser, a political consultant who works to elect Republicans across the nation. "They feel they are just as entitled to their mandate as the president does to his."
One agenda item where common ground may be achieved is an ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
Republicans fared dismally among Hispanics in the November election and are anxious to “run to catch up,” said Stephen Hess, a former staffer of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter who now studies the presidency at the Brookings Institution. Republicans “pushed aside the largest growing minority group and they see what that means in very real terms,” Hess said.
Obama “expects to move very quickly on immigration after the inauguration” and will outline details in the State of the Union address he’ll deliver Feb. 12, spokesman Jay Carney said.
Obama’s proposal is expected to include a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants – perhaps with fines and payment of back taxes – as well as a nationwide system to verify the legal status for workers and a program allowing more highly skilled immigrants to stay in the country.
The White House this week praised Sen. Marco Rubio’s immigration proposals, saying they “bode well” for bipartisan action – but it acknowledged Obama hasn’t talked to the Florida Republican.
Obama has pledged to use the entirety of his office to push his efforts to curb gun violence, but actual legislation will be tough to get through Congress. He’s enlisting his campaign and social media to press Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons, a limit on the amount of ammunition that can be held in a magazine and background checks on all gun purchases.
With no tightening of gun restrictions in decades, Hess said “even small victories could be recognized” as an achievement.
Vice President Joe Biden – who earlier this month came to Obama’s aid in hammering out a compromise with congressional Republicans to avert a series of tax hikes and spending cuts – will help Obama make the case to Congress and the public.
“We’re going to go around the country making our case,” Biden told the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week, adding that he expects the administration will be criticized for the effort but has no choice.
“People will say, ‘If we’re spending that much energy, we’re not spending enough energy on immigration, we’re not spending enough energy on the fiscal problem,’" Biden said. "Look folks, presidents don’t get to choose what they deal with, they deal with what is before them.”
The history books, however, are replete with second-term presidents tripped up by their own hubris, scandal or controversy. Ronald Reagan endured the Iran-Contra scandal, the dark mark of his otherwise successful presidency. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying to conceal an affair. George W. Bush tried to get Congress to overhaul Social Security and couldn’t get his own party to even bring it to a vote.
Obama said he’s “more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” adding, “We are very cautious about that. On the other hand, I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in re-election.”
History also suggests, Hess said, that Obama has to move fast “because of the nature of a second term. The historical pattern is that of an hourglass with the sand running out.”
Presidential power often ebbs midway through a second term, and many presidents have turned to foreign policy to burnish their legacy.
Obama already has a raft of pressing international obligations. They include stopping Iran’s nuclear program; navigating an end to the war in Afghanistan even as the Taliban and other insurgent groups remain potent; containing spillover from Syria’s civil war; and avoiding tensions with China over the administration’s “pivot" to Asia.
Whether Obama will make much headway on his promise from his first inauguration to bridge the partisan gap is unknown, though critics say there is little in his record to suggest he will.
He’s been criticized for not mixing much with members of Congress, and he acknowledged at a press conference that it would be one way to get issues resolved. He joked that relations might improve now that his teen and pre-teen daughters aren’t as eager to hang out with their parents.
“I’ll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house,” Obama said. “So maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more.”
But he acknowledged a new rapprochement is unlikely, insisting its politics, and not his personality, that have created the gulf.
"When I’m over here at the congressional picnic and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them and we have a wonderful time,” he said. “But it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”