WASHINGTON -- There is something about the start of a second presidential term that induces talk and speculation about the incumbent's eventual "legacy." Such notions are usually based on the president's accomplishments in the first term plus expectations -- or fears -- of what might yet come.
In most cases in recent times, the optimism that greeted the first term was dampened somewhat by the beginning of the second term. Bad economic times, war or other foreign policy intrusion, or some personal presidential shortcoming had taken a toll.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, made it through their eight White House years despite, in the first instance, a major sex scandal and in the second a couple of unresolved wars. As a result, it's unlikely prospect that either one of them will ever wind up on Mount Rushmore.
A gush of near-adoration marked the 2008 election of Barack Obama, fueled by the man's promise to change the way Washington worked and the historic aspect of the first African American elected. A similar phenomenon had not really been seen here since the brash young Irish Catholic, John Kennedy, burst on the scene with his glamorous wife nearly half a century earlier.
Yet barely six months into Obama's second term, much of the bloom seems off the presidential rose despite his re-election. His prime legislative accomplishment of the first term, enactment of the Affordable Care Act (much denigrated as "Obamacare"), still faces full implementation. And danger signals for it lie ahead in the second term.
Many states appear to be balking or slow-walking the creation of the bureaucratic devices to service or lure buyers of health insurance, amid warnings of a future nightmare. Meanwhile, the Republican leaders in Congress who vowed to kill the plan in its crib continue to try, with meaningless House votes to "replace and repeal" it.
The ambitious effort to enact stiffer gun control legislation sparked by the Newtown grade school tragedy could not overcome the gun lobby, even as dogged Vice President Joe Biden still strives to apply artificial respiration to the slain corpse.
Further fiscal cliffs loom as the mutual suicide pact labeled sequestration hangs on. At the same time, the prospects for a second-term prize of significant immigration reform have encountered House Speaker John Boehner's declaration that he will bar such legislation from reaching the House floor unless a majority of Republicans support it.
In foreign policy, pressures have built to pull this reluctant president into a greater commitment to assist the complicated forces bent on ousting President Bashar al-Assad from Syria. Obama has let his rhetoric outdistance his engagement, haunted by his 2008 pledge to detour off the adventurous Middle East track of his predecessor.
All this has hindered his ability to pursue his original agenda, obliged as he has been throughout his first term and now into his second to deal with the economic and foreign policy disasters he inherited. First it was digging out of the Great Recession born in part of Wall Street greed and manipulation. Then it was trying to clean up the messes left in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The one acknowledged achievement above any other was the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden, which provided a temporary opportunity to tap into a bruised American pride. However, the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated that the terrorist threat remains. On top of all this are latest scandals of governmental electronic snooping that have forced Obama into another defensive crouch, as he labors to get onto the offensive with his numerous legislative proposals effectively checked by his congressional foes.
So the matter of Obama's "legacy" remains anybody's guess right now, as the sand in his presidential hourglass inexorably runs out on the three-plus years left to him in the Oval Office. He has to hope that the 2014 congressional elections will throw him a strong enough lifeline to bring him to shore in time to achieve more of what he sought in those sunny days when "Yes we can" was not yet a mockery.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)