WASHINGTON -- 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.