Obama Stands on Solid Political Ground as Inauguration Nears

President is looking pretty good heading into his second term.


"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.

President Obama will be sworn in for a second term later this month, which will prompt endless analysis of how he's doing at the midpoint of his administration. The truth of the matter is he is doing relatively well and has established a solid foundation on which to build over the next four years.

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Obama is still having lots of trouble getting a balky Congress to go along with his agenda, as seen in last week's last-minute deal that avoided the "fiscal cliff." He did get his way, by winning House and Senate approval for tax increases on the wealthiest Americans and an extension of unemployment benefits. But he couldn't forge a wider compromise on spending cuts, creating consternation and anger among conservatives. This set the stage for another confrontation with Republicans on the spending issue several weeks from now, and the fight is expected to be just as brutal as it's been in the past. And Obama will continue to lock horns with the GOP over many other issues, including the debt ceiling, immigration, and gun control.

But the president has achieved some real successes over the past four years, one reason that he won a second term in the November election.

He managed to help stop the economic collapse endangering the economy when he took office in 2009, and he worked with Congress to strengthen regulations governing the financial industry.

He secured congressional approval for a massive overhaul of the healthcare system. All of the provisions have yet to take effect, and the measure remains controversial. But it will provide millions of Americans with health coverage.

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He ended the U.S. combat role in Iraq and appears to be on the way to doing so in Afghanistan.

He ordered the mission that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

He created much of the impetus behind the movement to allow same-sex marriage, which is considered a major achievement by his fans.

He has learned a lot about how to be president, particularly about the need to capture and shape the public mood during such times of crisis as the recent massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut, when he emerged as comforter in chief.

Of course, he is the first African-American president. This fact alone makes him a historic figure, lifting the spirits of many who wanted the country to move beyond its sad history of slavery, segregation, and racial prejudice.

And in purely political terms, Obama has moved to create a new governing majority for the 21st century. He has won two presidential elections with overwhelming support from African-Americans, Latinos, young people, unmarried women, and new voters. If it lasts, this realignment could be one of his most important achievements.

On the negative side, Obama has not healed the economy, and millions remain out of work. Federal deficits have soared on his watch, and the astronomical national debt is a rising concern.

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He has proven to be a far more polarizing figure than expected, generating deep angst and even fear among conservatives that he is taking the country down a ruinous path of red ink with an ever-more-powerful and intrusive federal government.

He has been unable or unwilling to fulfill some of his most important promises, such as addressing immigration and climate change.

And he has been unsuccessful at making peace in the Middle East, or in persuading Iran to back off its nuclear program. (Obama has said the nation is headed toward making a nuclear weapon.)

Obama's second-term priorities include continued work to reduce the deficit and strengthen the economy. He also wants to persuade Congress to overhaul immigration laws and create a path to legal residency or citizenship for millions of people who entered the United States illegally. And he wants Congress to pass stronger gun control laws.

None of this will be easy, because Washington is so divided.

And Obama could always overreach and fall into the swamp of hubris—a problem that has plagued other presidents in their second terms. He says he is well aware of the dangers and will avoid them.

This remains to be seen. But Obama does have a solid record to build upon. And that's a real plus as he begins his second term in difficult times.

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