Politicians of all stripes say Obama's first priority is to resolve the deep partisan divide over tax-and-spending issues, exemplified by repeated impasses over two years that led to this week's showdown on the “fiscal cliff.”
An even higher-risk conflict may arise in a few months. Congress again must either raise the federal debt ceiling or see the government default on its loans.
Beyond that, lawmakers and interest groups are watching for signs of how hard Obama might push to restrict firearms and expand illegal immigrants' rights.
Obama said last Wednesday that gun control will be a central issue in his second term. “I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” he said of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass killings.
The president named an interagency task force to recommend anti-violence legislation within weeks. The strategy gives him room to distance himself somewhat from its recommendations if he wants, even though he named Vice President Joe Biden to chair the panel.
Americans' affinity for firearms runs deep, and many political activists think Obama could have more sweeping success with immigration changes.
He won a big majority of Hispanics' votes in both his elections. The trend alarms Republican strategists, who fear their party won't win another presidential election until it repairs its bad relations with Latinos.
With Democrats and Republicans increasingly aware of Hispanics' growing political clout, “this might be an historic opportunity,” Troy said.
Chris Dolan, a political scientist at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, agrees. He said he expects Obama to be “incredibly ambitious on comprehensive immigration reform.”
The effort, Dolan said, could “build a lasting Democratic support group. You can't do that with gun control.”
Still, opposition to granting citizenship to illegal immigrants runs deep in many circles, especially the Republican Party's base. Bids for “comprehensive immigration reform” have gone nowhere in Congress in recent years.
Several advocacy groups want Obama to make the most of his executive powers to enact measures that don't require congressional action.
The Migration Policy Institute earlier this year made several suggestions regarding immigrants. They included “establishing uniform enforcement priorities,” defining “what constitutes effective border control,” and “allowing applicants for immigrant visas to file in the United States.”
Now that Obama has won re-election, however, the advocacy group wants him instead to push a broader agenda through Congress.
“With the issue teed up for possible action,” said Doris Meissner, a former commissioner at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, antagonizing congressional Republicans with executive actions “would not be politically smart.”
The political climate for sweeping immigration changes “is significantly better,” Meissner said, “but that does not mean it will happen.”
Even with a full plate of challenges and a hostile party controlling the House, she said, “I think Obama absolutely has to go big on immigration.”
The White House has declined to detail the president's plans for a second-term agenda. Once the deficit-spending problems known as the “fiscal cliff” are addressed, said White House spokeswoman Jamie Smith, “President Obama looks forward to working on a number of issues that are critical to our future, from immigration to energy, to education and national security direction.”