Setting Clear Priorities Will Be Key for Obama

Washington can only handle one or two major issues at a time, so the president should limit his goals.

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President Barack Obama gestures as he talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Washington.
President Barack Obama gestures as he talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations at the White House in December.

President Obama's administration is brimming with new initiatives, creating a fresh sense of possibility at the White House but also alarming Washington veterans who wonder if he is asking too much of himself, his staff, and especially Congress. The challenge for Obama will be to set clear priorities rather than allow his wish list to get bogged down in a capital that has trouble dealing with more than one or two major issues at a time.

First and foremost, Obama is immersed in budget negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican leader in Congress.

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If they fail to make a deal, tax increases and deep spending cuts will automatically start taking effect on January 1, which could create another recession. And even if Obama reaches an agreement with Boehner, it won't mean that restless conservatives or equally concerned liberals will accept what their leaders produce. Getting a final pact will take up large amounts of energy and political capital.

In addition, gun control has gained new urgency since a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last week and killed 26 people. On Wednesday, Obama named Vice President Joe Biden to head a panel aimed at formulating gun-control and related legislation and building support for it on Capitol Hill. Obama says there is no "excuse for inaction" and wants Congress to pass his evolving package within the first few months of 2013, but that will be a formidable challenge.

Obama has also said he wants to win passage early next year for legislation to control climate change, to revamp energy policy, and overhaul the immigration laws—addressing three extremely complex problems on which there is no political consensus. And Obama is expected to increase federal regulations in many areas, such as health and safety, which is a nettlesome process.

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In addition, Obama has begun considering replacements for several key cabinet members who want to step down, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Recasting his administration will be a major task all by itself.

Obama may be capable of juggling many complex issues at a time. He did it for a while when he first took office during an economic meltdown and pushed successfully for legislation to stimulate the economy, revamp the healthcare system, and strengthen regulations on Wall Street. But his Democratic party also lost control of the House, and other parts of his initial agenda went nowhere, such as immigration reform.

And there is an axiom in Washington: Congress, the bureaucracy, the media, and other power centers can do justice to only one or two issues at a time. Phil Schiliro, Obama's former liaison to Congress, said Obama has "always had a personal commitment" to gun control, for example.

But Schiliro told the New York Times, "Given the crisis he faced when he first took office, there's only so much capacity in the system to move his agenda." So Obama might be wise to limit his goals now and avoid overburdening the system, or he could face major setbacks that would limit his power and credibility for the remainder of his presidency.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.