WASHINGTON — The Constitution may promise President Barack Obama another four years in the White House, but political reality calls for a far shorter time frame: he has perhaps as little as a year to accomplish his big-ticket goals for a second term.
As the president begins promoting his agenda of tackling gun control, immigration and climate change, even while bracing for yet another deadline-driven fiscal debate with Republicans, his advisers are scrambling to prioritize his ambitions to avoid squandering precious time.
Tensions are already emerging between the White House and some Democrats about how much emphasis the president and Vice President Joe Biden should give their gun control measures and whether a drawn-out debate over the Second Amendment could imperil the rest of the party’s initiatives, particularly on immigration.
The mass shooting last month in Newtown, Conn., elevated gun control on the administration’s agenda, suddenly competing with plans to push for sweeping changes in the nation’s immigration laws. Faced with a choice after his re-election in 2004, President George W. Bush chose to pursue a Social Security overhaul before an immigration bill and, amid partisan rancor over the Social Security fight, ended up getting neither.
For all of the revelry surrounding the president’s second inauguration this week, Obama, his aides and congressional allies know that their window of opportunity narrows with each passing month.
“You hope and plan for a year, with the understanding that it could be several months less or several months more,” said Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary and longtime adviser to Obama. “It does require having a step-by-step plan for the year because you have a finite amount of time.”
The tenor of the president’s inaugural address Monday, where he delivered a forceful argument for pursuing an ambitious liberal agenda, signaled that Obama might try to approach Republicans with a sterner hand than he did in his first term. Already, he has signed executive orders on gun control and, at least for the moment, forced a Republican retreat on raising the debt ceiling.
Yet some of Obama’s most ambitious goals still require action from Congress, and Republicans still control the House. Even the Republicans’ decision to agree to an effective three-month extension on the debt ceiling creates complications, by keeping the budget fight high on the agenda. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., expressed the uphill climb with fiscal matters looming over the Capitol Hill, declaring: “We have to do a budget. We aren’t going to do anything of consequence here until the budget is done.”
The State of the Union address that Obama will deliver to Congress on Feb. 12 will offer the most definitive road map yet for how the White House will set priorities in his second term as well as how it intends to avoid becoming mired in a heated debate over one contentious topic to the detriment of the full agenda.