When President Barack Obama addresses the nation Monday in his second inaugural address, he will have an opportunity to lay out a broad and ambitious agenda for his next four years in office. But how much of it he will actually be able to accomplish may depend on whether the continuing fight over taxes, deficits and the budget in a fractious Congress doesn't end up crowding out every other issue.
The president and Congress face an immediate set of confrontations, including the need to raise the federal debt ceiling -- Republicans' promise for a short-term extension notwithstanding -- the deadline to address budget cuts put off as part of the fiscal cliff deal, and the expiration of current budget agreements in March. Mr. Obama needs to emerge from those battles with a significant, long-term deal on tax, entitlement and discretionary spending reform. During his news conference this week, the president suggested that a total package of tax increases and spending cuts on the order of $1.5 billion over the next decade, on top of earlier tax and spending agreements, would be sufficient. That isn't enough either to ensure the nation's long-term prosperity or to free the president from a crippling series of standoffs with the Republican-led House of Representatives in the years ahead.
The president is right to stick to his assurances that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling or accept a solution to the nation's fiscal problems that fails to balance cuts with new revenue. But he must also not abandon his earlier instincts to seek a grand bargain on the budget. He has failed in that effort before, but the deal Mr. Obama and Congress struck to avoid most of the tax increases that were due on Jan. 1 shows that it is possible to assemble a coalition that puts the national interest ahead of partisanship — it just takes extraordinary pressure from the public to make it happen. To that end, he has moved to convert his campaign apparatus to a nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing support for his agenda.
His first opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of that strategy is with gun control. The tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., has forced the issue to the top of the agenda, and the president laid out an ambitious set of policy goals this week, including a new ban on assault weapons and the expansion of the mandatory background check system to gun shows and private sales. A solid majority of the American public is behind him. Still, the assault weapons ban will be difficult to enact. Closing the gun show loophole, however, may be more important — and more possible.
Immigration is another good chance for the president to enact legislation with bipartisan support. The president has indicated that he is interested in a comprehensive package of reforms that includes a path to citizenship — though not amnesty — for illegal immigrants who have not broken other laws. Many Republicans realize the party's harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric has cost it badly with the increasingly crucial Latino voting bloc, and that, along with traditional support for such reforms among business groups, could be enough to get legislation through Congress.
One of the great disappointments of Mr. Obama's first term was how little he did to address the issue of climate change, but the violent storms and record high temperatures of recent years leave no doubt about the importance of the issue. Without American leadership, the world will not act.
Given the entrenched denial of an overwhelming scientific consensus on man-made global warming in much of the Republican Party, this issue may be among the most challenging for Mr. Obama to face. But nothing fosters success like success. If Mr. Obama can use the early days of his term to develop a governing paradigm that relies on Democrats and what moderate Republicans remain in Washington, he stands a chance of leaving office with a record of real accomplishment.