Gray temples and a strained face revealed old struggles, but when President Barack Obama entered the East Room last week for a news conference closing out his first term, he showed an aggressive streak that could define the second. Over the course of an hour, Obama dared Republicans to a fight over spending cuts, scoffed at the suggestion he failed to build relationships with Congress and waved election results in the face of criticism. The message: I won, and I'm going to act like it.
Obama's new tone is matched with a sweeping agenda covering gun control, immigration reform and climate change — issues that will fight for attention amid a continuing showdown with Republicans over the debt, a still-recovering economy and volatility overseas.
The fast pace is out of necessity. Second-term power begins to steadily diminish within the first year to 18 months, when lawmakers turn attention to the midterm elections and jockeying begins over the next presidency.
"A second term is like an hourglass with the time running out. The president's best opportunities are early opportunities," said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked for four presidents.
While Obama's agenda reflects that reality, his hardened posture also shows how much has changed from the 2009 inauguration, when millions of Americans believed he could make everyone get along.
"President Obama ran a campaign in 2008 that was entirely expected from a non-incumbent. You promise and you imply that if you elect me everything good is going to happen," said presidential historian and author H.W. Brands.
"In Obama's case there was also the whole racial aspect: 'If we elect a black president, we no longer have to worry about America being a racist society,' " Brands said. "As a candidate it was perfectly understandable, and in fact irresistible, for Obama to let people develop these inordinate expectations about what would happen should he be elected. But then immediately it becomes his burden."
The troubled economy Obama inherited worsened and he pursued a massive stimulus that attracted fierce opposition from Republicans and delivered results that were hard for many Americans to see, though economists conclude it prevented further disaster. Instead of focusing on jobs, Obama pursued a contentious health care overhaul that fueled the tea party and pushed Republicans farther away.
Republicans say he did not compromise enough; Democrats say he compromised too much, was too timid.
"If you look at the 2010 midterm elections, the reason we lost was he wasn't aggressive enough," said Susan Smith, a Democratic activist who lives near Tampa. "They dropped the ball on messaging on health care and the tea party stepped in."
Smith said the election results show the public does not want Obama to use changes to Medicare or Social Security as a bargaining chip over the debt. Obama, however, said last week that he was open to "modest adjustments to programs like Medicare to protect them for future generations."
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Besides post-election momentum, Obama can draw from a Republican opposition without a clear leader or a clear direction. Already the GOP has backed down from threats to oppose a short-term increase in the "debt ceiling," the federal government's ability to borrow money, without deep spending cuts.
Obama also won higher taxes on the wealthy in the fiscal cliff showdown, breaking the GOP's most dogged stance over the past two decades.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week showed 55 percent of Americans think Obama is doing a good job overall, more than double those who gave positive marks to Republicans in Congress. But the newspaper reported that Obama has the lowest approval rating from Republicans — 17 percent — than any president entering his second term in the past half-century.
The debt issue, which Obama and Congress have dealt with incrementally, remains a source of messy fights to come that can stymie other priorities.
"The fiscal cliff starts the fiscal cascade. Four or five months of his new administration could be plugged up," said Sara Fagen, George W. Bush's White House political director.
The debate over gun control, an issue Obama ducked in his first term, is an early sign of the difficulties he faces even among his own party. Senate Democrats from gun rights states have already resisted calls for reinstating the assault weapons ban and other measures. Defeat in the Republican-held House is likely. But Obama is moving anyway, pledging last week to "put everything I've got into this" with legislation and executive orders.
The statement underscored how second-term Obama is shunning the compromise approach that frustrated his base over the past four years. Obama not only doesn't have to worry about re-election, but the coalition that put him back in the White House — women, minorities and young voters — support gun control and other issues in his pocket.
"Public opinion is on the president's side," said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a South Florida Democrat. "This is exactly what Republicans have been clamoring for, the strongest possible leadership on the issues that are so important to our country."
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Before the Connecticut school shootings put guns back in the national dialogue, Obama said he would make immigration a top priority of a second term (he promised reform as a candidate in 2008) and there appears to be movement. Republicans, who saw their low standing among Hispanics plummet further in the November election, want to do something to curtail a demographic crisis. If Obama can help foster a bipartisan deal, it will be a lasting part of his legacy.
A second term also gives him another chance at climate change policy. Broad legislation failed early in Obama's first term and environmentalists have uneven feelings about his record. In 2011, as he geared up for re-election, Obama pulled back on smog standards that would have been costly to business, reversing moves his own EPA made to improve air quality.
Tiernan Sittenfeld, who directs the policy and lobbying efforts for the League of Conservation Voters, praised Obama's first term, citing efforts raising fuel efficiency in cars to new mercury standards, and is hopeful he will follow through on plans to address climate change. She said even if Congress is an impediment, the Clean Air Act gives Obama authority to act.
"We know we're not about to pass a strong comprehensive bill through the House, so we're really focused on the great opportunity we have on the administrative side," Sittenfeld said.
Historically, presidents have turned to foreign affairs in their second term as domestic power wanes. Ronald Reagan secured an arms control deal with the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton pushed a NATO bombing effort that stopped ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Bush turned to Africa and AIDS.
"The axiom is when they can't run for re-election, they run for the Nobel Peace Prize," said Hess, the presidential scholar.
But history has shown second-term successes are overshadowed by disappointments and sometimes scandal (Reagan, Iran Contra; Clinton, Monica Lewinsky).
Obama will be fighting this second-term curse while racing against the hourglass.
"It's almost a Benjamin Button political dynamic," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, referring to the Brad Pitt charter who aged in reverse. "You look backwards from three years from now and see what you can get done."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]