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Obama has long work list to tackle upon return

| Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 7:47 p.m.

WASHINGTON — It's hardly a secret that Barack Obama, like every president no doubt, muses about his ultimate legacy and spot in the presidential pantheon. He approaches his second term confronting tough and shifting challenges that will play big roles in shaping the rest of his presidency and his eventual place in history.

In the coming months, Obama will have to decide where to be ambitious, where to be cautious and where to buy time.

He draws political strength from his surprisingly easy re-election in a bad economy. It's partly offset, however, by Republicans' continued control of the House, plus their filibuster powers in the Senate.

Some of the big issues awaiting the president's decisions are familiar, long-simmering problems. They include immigration and the need for a tenable balance among taxes, spending and borrowing.

Another issue, gun control, jumped to the national agenda's top tier this month after the massacre of first-graders and teachers in a Connecticut school. And the issue of climate change remains unresolved.

Veteran politicians and presidential historians say it's almost impossible for Obama to “go big” on all these issues. Indeed, it might prove difficult to go big on even one. While some counsel caution, others urge the president to be as bold and ambitious as possible.

“Americans are yearning for leadership,” said Gil Troy, a presidential scholar at Canada's McGill University.

As a president dealing with policy, he said, Obama has generally failed to give “that visionary, powerful address that we came to know and love and expect in the 2008 campaign.”

Rather than let Congress take the lead on big issues, as it did in drafting the 2009 health care overhaul, Obama should be more forceful in pushing legislation or using his executive powers to bypass Congress where possible, Troy said.

“The gun control issue is a major opportunity for Obama to make his mark on history ­— and solve a problem that has frustrated Democrats for decades,” he added.

Other presidential historians, however, think Obama is severely constrained by political realities. They say he will have to carefully pick and choose which goals to emphasize in his second four years.

“I see Obama as almost uniquely handcuffed by circumstances,” said John Baick of Western New England University. The number of big, unresolved problems facing the nation, coupled with a deeply divided public and Congress, he said, leave Obama with fewer viable options than most presidents have enjoyed.

Paul Rego, a political scientist at Messiah College in Grantham, agrees with Baick.

“While President Obama does not face the same cataclysmic events that Abraham Lincoln faced, or that FDR encountered in the form of the Great Depression and World War II, his challenges are many and significant,” Rego said in an email.

He said Obama “faces a hurdle that neither Lincoln nor Roosevelt had to overcome during the tumultuous years of their respective presidencies: divided government.”

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