Just re-elected, President Barack Obama already is confronting a time crunch. Tuesday's State of the Union address presents a rare and fleeting opportunity to push the second-term agenda that could help determine his legacy — if he can get Congress to act quickly.
The president has maybe a year before electoral politics tends to accelerate the already nasty gridlock between the White House and Republican lawmakers frustrated that Obama won a second term.
Still, this is Obama's best chance to be the transformational leader he signaled he wants to be in his inaugural address when he called for a long list of left-leaning priorities, including gun control, immigration reform, climate change and advancing rights for gays and women. These were issues he didn't prioritize in his first term as he grappled with two wars and a recession — and faced a re-election bid in which he needed to campaign for America's middle. But fresh off his convincing victory, unburdened by the prospect of another campaign, now is his time to try to create his legacy.
The question is how far he is willing to go to get his agenda passed and whether he can overcome GOP obstacles. His agenda has to compete with real world demands of domestic problems and world events.
The unemployment rate recently has ticked up to 7.9 percent, only a few tenths of a percentage point lower than it was four years ago, and fights over spending loom on the legislative horizon. And North Korea's nuclear test and unrest in the Middle East put foreign policy back at center stage.
Democrats cheered Obama's inaugural speech and are looking for him to keep up "this new-found feistiness," as Democratic consultant Jim Manley described it.
"I want to see him following up on the aggressive tone in the inaugural address, including putting political capital behind both immigration and gun control, making it very clear it is his intention to get those both done sooner rather than later," said Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Manley says in his experience on Capitol Hill, Obama doesn't even have a year before lawmakers are unwilling to go along with his demands.
"It's a very narrow window, not much more than six months or so for possibly everything, with the possible exception of immigration reform that could take a little longer," Manley said.
That's because come next year, members of Congress will be focused on their own campaigns for the midterm election. Then attention focuses on the race to succeed Obama with the primary campaign taking shape in 2015.
Democrats won more seats than expected last fall and have hopes of winning control of the House. But those running in conservative-leaning districts could have more trouble if they are forced to take tough votes on Obama's agenda.
For now, Americans are far happier with Obama's leadership than they are with Congress. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 54 percent of registered voters approve of the job Obama is doing, compared with just 17 percent for Congress.
But that isn't preventing Republicans from digging in their heels. House Speaker John Boehner told television correspondents and anchors in a breakfast meeting Tuesday that immigration is about the only item on Obama's list that has a chance of passing this year. He said the president is more interested in getting a Democratic majority in both chambers next year to get what he wants and he doesn't believe Obama "has the guts" to take on liberals in his party over spending cuts.
"I think he'd love to have Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House and Harry Reid as the leader of the Senate for the last two years of his presidency," Boehner said, according to a report on ABCNews.com. "He knows that none of (the president's agenda outlined in the inaugural) is going to happen as long as we have the majority in the House."
But University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall argues a successful follow-up performance in the State of the Union could help persuade the American people to back his agenda for change. Kall said Obama's challenge is to simultaneously persuade members of Congress in his live audience along with tens of millions of Americans watching from home. He said it's no accident that Obama is following up the speech with travel outside Washington to Georgia, North Carolina and Illinois later this week.
"A persuasive speech tonight could provide positive momentum to his upcoming three-state tour and set a solid foundation for an inside-outside Washington strategy of getting his agenda passed and cementing his legacy," Kall said.
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