WASHINGTON — Amid his fiscal negotiations with Congress and the shootings in Newtown, Conn., President Barack 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 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 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.
As he has previewed since the Sandy Hook Elementary 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.