— Four years after he rode into the White House on a message of change, President Barack Obama is set to begin his second term Monday amid lowered expectations and a sense that his re-election has done little to alter the nation's fractured political landscape.
Despite talk about a major overhaul of immigration policy and a comprehensive plan to deal with gun violence, the Obama administration will immediately shift from the celebratory mood of the inaugural to another bitter, pressing fight with congressional Republicans over spending, taxes and budget deficits.
How much Obama can accomplish in his next term is anyone's guess, but few expect a continuation of the sweeping policies that defined his first years in office. Despite a convincing win in the November election, the country remains deeply divided over how to address the economy, immigration and the nation's spiraling debt.
"What is possible is hard to say because we have a tea party that I think is basically controlling the House and has Speaker [John] Boehner in a bind," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, who said he hopes the administration can advance legislation on the economy, gun control and home foreclosures in the next term.
"The president has got to move this conversation away from reducing benefits for Social Security and Medicare," he said.
Obama's first term spanned the bailout of the American auto industry, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, upheaval in the Arab world, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices. But the past four years will likely be remembered more for his struggle against high unemployment and partisan gridlock.
Because of that — and with an eye on the short, two-year window to get anything done before the 2014 election — the administration is bracing for battles ahead, signaling that it intends to take a more assertive line with conservative Republicans who have pushed hard for deficit reduction. The first opportunity to test that approach will come next month, when lawmakers confront difficult choices that were delayed by this month's "fiscal cliff" deal.
The nation will hit its $14.6 trillion debt ceiling by mid-February, setting up the latest in a series of showdowns with Congress. House Republican leaders indicated Friday that they are open to a short-term debt ceiling increase, though it's not clear how much support that idea has within the caucus.
Polls show that Obama is starting his second term — which officially begins with a private swearing-in today — in a stronger position than he was in for much of his presidency. At 52 percent, his approval rating is up 8 percentage points from a year ago, according to a poll last week for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Many remain hopeful that Obama can still deliver change.
Gwendolyn Stephens, whose son, Mario Williams, was shot and killed in East Baltimore three weeks before Obama was sworn in the first time, said she believes the president can make progress on gun control. The president unveiled a broad package of proposals last week in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, from reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons to requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales.
"Every time I see a child has lost their life because of a gun, it just tears my heart up because I know what the mother or the parent is going through," the 63-year-old Pikesville resident said. "If he could just do something,"
Yet voters are less optimistic about prospects for cooperation in Washington than they were in 2009, polling shows. And Obama's approval is lower than seven of the past eight presidents who won a second term, with George W. Bush as the one exception. Bill Clinton began his second term with a 59 percent approval rating. Ronald Reagan had 62 percent in the beginning of 1985.
"Unfortunately, this is a president that hasn't had the training ground like a Ronald Reagan or a Bill Clinton," California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, told Bloomberg Government's Capitol Gains in an interview scheduled to air today. "Every time this president has come and tried to make an agreement, he can't get there."
The current political dynamic — as well as the history of second presidential terms — suggests that Obama will be forced to settle on smaller initiatives rather than comprehensive reforms, experts say.
The White House is already working around Congress through executive actions that are faster to implement but are also less meaty than what can be accomplished legislatively. For example, rather than press for a rewrite of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act to eliminate tough — and, most argue, unattainable — requirements for schools, the U.S. Department of Education granted waivers to 34 states, including Maryland.
The administration has also taken unilateral steps on immigration, such as granting temporary deportation reprieves for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. That move came after the Democratic-controlled Senate failed to pass a similar bill.
Relying on executive action and focusing on international policy are hallmarks of second-term presidencies, said David E. Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. Presidents have less political capital with Congress as second terms run out, particularly as jockeying for the next election begins.
"By the time it's the third or fourth year, almost no one is listening to the president," Lewis said, referring to the political establishment in Washington. "It's going to make it incredibly difficult to get anything done if the president doesn't get things done quickly."
Republicans were initially cautious in their attacks of the nation's first black president, who was widely popular when he took office in 2009. But that changed as Democrats pushed through a sweeping health care law. It helped millions of Americans gain access to insurance, but opponents charged that it was unaffordable and bloated.
The health care fight gave rise to the tea party movement, which propelled Republicans to capture control of the House in the 2010 election. The slow economic recovery — despite an $831 billion economic stimulus package Obama shepherded through Congress — provided additional fodder for critics, who focused the public's attention on the national debt.
For now, immigration reform is among the few issues gaining traction on Capitol Hill — and even its prospects are dicey. After an election in which Hispanics voted in droves for Obama and other Democrats, some Republicans are coming around to the idea that an overhaul will have to include more than securing the border with Mexico.
And that has given hope to millions of immigrants, legal and illegal, for what is possible in a second Obama term.
"I want to be a part of this country, and I want to finally see immigration reform pass," said a 44-year-old Essex woman who provided only her first name, Albertina, because she is in the country illegally after overstaying a visa. "I have faith that Obama is going to do this."
The possibility of bipartisan agreement on any domestic policy will hinge on how quickly Democrats and Republicans can resolve long-standing disagreements over spending. Some, like former Maryland Rep. Tom McMillen, are publicly pushing for a broad package of tax and entitlement reforms that would allow lawmakers to resolve the deficit issue rather than continuing to delay difficult decisions.
McMillen, a Democrat who represented Maryland's 4th Congressional District from 1987 to 1993, has joined a bipartisan coalition of business and political leaders called Fix the Debt that has advocated for a centrist approach on the budget.
The inability of Obama and Boehner to strike a grand bargain on taxes and entitlement — despite getting close, twice — has dampened hope in Washington for such a deal. But McMillen isn't giving up and said Congress shouldn't, either.
"Even though this process is … not pretty to watch, I'm optimistic that we, at the end of this process, will get the kind of comprehensive, long-term plan that we want," he said. "We are making progress."
Second term for Maryland
In addition to high-profile issues such as spending, guns and immigration, Maryland would be affected by a number of other measures expected during Obama's second term.
•Lawmakers are overdue to pass a long-term farm bill that could have implications for Chesapeake Bay restoration as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
•Congress is likely to take another shot at reforming the U.S. Postal Service, which could affect whether dozens of post offices in the region remain open.
•Washington may take a more comprehensive approach to funding the federal government than is possible under the current stopgap budget, an effort that would affect federal employees and contractors based in the state.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun