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 changes, 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 Middle East.
“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.”
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 Monday 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 overhaul, 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.”
Obama’s first two years in office were guided by the how-to-win-in-Washington tactics of Rahm Emanuel, his first chief of staff and a veteran of the Clinton administration and Capitol Hill.
Emanuel subscribed to the theory that in Washington, “if you aren’t pitching, you are catching,” as one former senior official said. And Emanuel did not want Obama, with his popularity high and his party controlling Congress, to wait for the ball.
Obama secured a $787 billion stimulus package, an auto-industry bailout, new Wall Street regulations and health-care legislation that, for the first time, 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.
Emanuel left the administration toward the end of 2010 to run successfully for mayor of Chicago. Soon after, voters, animated by the tea party spirit, gave Republicans control of the House.
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 reelection.
As one Democratic supporter of the president said, “The White House has essentially been in ‘do no harm’ mode for the past year, and now it heads into a sprint.”
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 reelection 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.
Although issues of spending cuts and long-term deficit reduction were left for another time, Obama stuck to his campaign promise that the George W. Bush-era tax rates paid by the wealthiest Americans would have to rise, a pledge he did not abide by two years ago.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll published last week showed that even Republicans have noted a difference. Sixty-one percent of respondents called Obama a “strong leader,” up 10 points from a year ago. The rise included a 17-point increase in Republican support for that characterization.
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 revisions 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.
“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 Congress, is the one that even Obama’s closest supporters say he needs to improve.
In his news conference last week, Obama blamed his reputation for aloofness in Washington on the partisan divide he once pledged to mend.
Republicans, he said, believe it is politically dangerous to be seen with him given the antipathy many in their deep-red districts feel toward him.
Even his supporters say he should attempt to change that, using those Republicans who supported the final fiscal cliff deal as an initial call sheet that could also include GOP governors and business leaders and others who may offer help.
“It’s not a panacea,” Gibbs said of an outreach effort that could include more White House invitations to movies and sports events. “But the question becomes what do you agree on and what overlaps politically? The more you have these conversations, the more likely it is you’ll stumble across a compromise.”
With a recalcitrant Congress at home, Obama, like second-term presidents before him, may find more room abroad to shape his legacy.
“The saying is that once you have run your last election you run for the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Hess, the presidential scholar. “The problem is that he already has that, even if it was a largely symbolic gesture.”
But even some of his closest supporters say that to make a lasting mark overseas will take more ambition than he has shown in his first four years, defined in large part by his management of what National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon calls the “critical legacy issues of the Bush administration.”
Those include ending the war in Iraq, winding down the war in Afghanistan and refocusing the war against al-Qaeda to make clear it does not include all Muslims. At the same time, Obama has worked to reenergize the alliances, particularly with European allies, that the George W. Bush administration found confining at times.
“The most important ambition that he had was to reposition us internationally,” said Dennis Ross, a key Obama adviser on Iran and the Middle East during the first two years of the administration. “There was a desire as well to change our image in various Muslim countries, but I think the work he did in Europe was, not surprisingly, far more successful than that one.”
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, that bridge the policy divide.
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 Middle Eastern 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 reelection, has withdrawn from the world over the past year at a dangerous time and must step back in quickly.
They are hoping for a higher presidential profile on such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Syrian civil war and the struggle for democracy in Egypt — all shaped to some degree by what one administration official described as the “generational event” known as the Arab Spring.
Since the election, Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers have canvassed outside analysts, visiting such think tanks as the Center for a New American Security, for assessments of what’s possible.
There is an opportunity, now that foreign leaders know it will be Obama for the next four years in the White House, to move swiftly on issues important to the president, such as shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal in talks with Russia, working with other nations on cybersecurity issues and negotiating an important trade pact with Asian countries.
As Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said, “There’s a benefit that comes with reelection in that, even abroad, you refill the glass with political capital.”
But Obama’s national security cabinet is not yet in place, and Rhodes said that will help determine some specific priorities and how the administration pursues them.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), for example, has told people that as secretary of state he would like to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority at a time of divided Palestinian leadership and an increasingly hawkish Israeli political environment.
Obama may be reluctant to begin that endeavor again, given the current political situation in the region and his failure in the first term to establish an enduring peace process with a new approach that angered Israel and some of its U.S. supporters.
“Now is probably not the time for grand plans or any dramatic proposals,” said Robert Malley, a Middle East adviser in the Clinton administration now at the International Crisis Group. “But to say that conditions are not ripe for an ambitious U.S. initiative does not mean waiting passively for them to ripen. It means taking deliberate and active steps to make them so.”