WASHINGTON – Amid his fiscal negotiations with Congress and the shootings in Newtown, Conn., President Obama has managed to hold several “think-big” meetings recently with senior advisers in the Roosevelt Room, and this month he dined with historians in the White House, searching for a rough road map for second-term leadership.
As one senior administration official described the brainstorming sessions, Obama has made a request that challenges the instinctive pragmatism he has shown in office.
“Let’s not focus on what’s possible or doable,” Obama has advised, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “Tell me what our goal should be, and let me worry about the politics.”
At the center of Obama’s search for a second-term strategy and lasting legacy sits a question being asked now by supporters outside the administration and officials within it: Can Obama, given his political personality and partisan circumstances, be the transformational president he aspired to be or, instead, just a moderately effective manager during difficult times?
His domestic agenda includes politically challenging issues such as immigration reform, measures to address climate change and gun control – the last two emerging in part from a personal sense of regret that he did not do more to advance them in his first term.
Abroad, Obama will be challenged to define an agenda rather than to have one defined for him by events, including the uprisings remaking the Mideast.
“He knows what he’s done, he knows what he can’t do, he knows what he must accomplish, and he knows what he’d like to accomplish,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. “But beyond that there is the guts question – and, for much of the first term, the question was, ‘Where are the guts?’ How he addresses that in the next term may define his legacy.”
Time is limited
Obama will move to build on what he considers the essential remedial work he had to do on the still-fragile economy and the mixed U.S. image abroad. His senior advisers say he is aware that second-term power is an hourglass running out of sand and that he must move quickly.
“Days in your second term are in many ways more important than in your first,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s communications director.
The theme of protecting the middle class, which Obama will probably address today in his inaugural speech and detail next month in his State of the Union remarks, carries into a new term some of the liberal populism of his last election.
Gun-control measures, immigration reform, clean-energy initiatives and college affordability are priorities that, at the outer end, Obama will have until the 2014 midterms to achieve before slipping into lame-duck irrelevance. He will also face the unfinished business of his first term, including ending America’s longest war.
How he will pursue his goals will more closely resemble the successful elements of his campaign, particularly the ways in which the former community organizer works to mobilize public opinion around his agenda. Each issue will have its own campaign.
As he has previewed since the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, Obama will speak often beyond the Beltway, enlist public support through online petitions and social media, propose legislative priorities and take executive action in pursuit of specific second-term goals, according to several senior administration officials involved in setting strategy.
If he is successful, his record could include a variety of legislative achievements that have eluded previous presidents and a place in history as the president who moved the country beyond the wars of the post-Sept. 11 era.
But, as the looming confrontation over the borrowing limit suggests, Obama’s ability to work with the Republican Party, through a mix of persuasion and confrontation, will probably determine his success – and his legacy, for better or worse.
“There’s a moment of opportunity now that’s important,” Pfeiffer said. “What’s frustrating is that we don’t have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity.”
In his first term, Obama secured a $787 billion stimulus package, an auto-industry bailout, new Wall Street regulations and health-care legislation promised insurance coverage for nearly all Americans.
But the political cost of moving that agenda was steep. The partisanship he had pledged to end only deepened, and many of the independent voters decisive in his election abandoned him.
A chastened Obama, who called the midterm election a “shellacking,” assumed a more defensive posture heading into the debt-ceiling debate that defined the next year.
Struggling with House Republicans and low approval ratings, Obama, by the beginning of 2012, had turned the central focus of his administration to re-election.
The election and the demands that followed have brought the administration out of its bunker. So, too, has Obama’s belief, expressed repeatedly since his victory, that his re-election represented a powerful vindication of his policies and his politics. He has reminded Congress pointedly to respect that.
Senior administration officials say Obama began setting a second-term tone for his leadership during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations that played out during the lame-duck session of the last Congress.
Senior administration officials and others close to Obama say they have learned lessons from the first term, namely about the need to better convince Americans of the need for specific change, whether it is gun control or immigration reform that top his near-term agenda. So more than just trying to cut deals with Congress, Obama has increasingly made his case to the American people first.
Better inside game
“You can’t exclusively play an inside game or an outside game – you have to do both,” said Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary during the first two years of the administration. “You have to continually talk to the American people about what you want to do and why. I think, at times, we forgot that.”
The inside game, dealing effectively with the Congress, is the one that even Obama’s closest supporters say he needs to improve.
Presidents have more time in a second term to make their mark on foreign policy than on the domestic front, and Obama intends to pursue several issues, including trade agreements and a broader clean-energy initiative.
Senior advisers say Obama’s national security legacy, beyond the killing of Osama bin Laden and ending the wars, could be remembered for making the United States less dependent on Mideast oil, if he can make progress in the coming term developing a clean-energy economy and expanding domestic oil and gas exploration.
But many supporters say Obama, preoccupied with re-election, has withdrawn from the world over the past year at a dangerous time and must step back in quickly.