Obama faces tough issues as second term begins
President Barack Obama on Wednesday begins to tackle a host of issues, some forced on him and others that will begin to mark out his second-term ambitions, after a campaign season that effectively froze much of Washington's work for months.
As he returns from Chicago and a final thank you to his campaign staff, Obama faces a worsening civil war in Syria now spilling its borders, a year-end fiscal showdown with a Congress largely unchanged by the recent election, and his own second-term staffing issues inside the White House and at key Cabinet agencies.
The ratification that Obama received Tuesday with his decisive electoral win over Mitt Romney is already being challenged by Republican congressional leaders, who warned that the victory should not be viewed as a broad mandate for tax rate increases for wealthy Americans and other issues that Obama successfully campaigned on.
But the stark election results may soften some of the promised Republican opposition, as the party and its leaders review the demographic data that helped doom their presidential candidate and cost them a net loss of two U.S. Senate seats.
Even before Tuesday, White House officials identified immigration reform as a likely issue Obama would seek to address with Republicans if he secured reelection. Given the large Latino turnout in Obama's favor, Republican leaders may be more encouraged to collaborate with the president to pass meaningful immigration legislation and improve their image with a fast-growing section of the electorate.
In his acceptance speech early Wednesday morning, Obama suggested several of the issues he intended to take on in the coming months, listing "reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system [and] freeing ourselves from foreign oil."
But he also made a glancing reference to another issue that many Democrats, and Obama himself in recent interviews, have elevated to a possible priority in his second term: political reform.
A package of future legislation could include bills to make voting easier across the country and a constitutional amendment to invalidate the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations, labor unions and other interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates.
In his State of the Union address that year, Obama called the Citizens United decision a mistake, drawing criticism for doing so with justices sitting in the House chamber.
But Obama also benefited from it during this multibillion-dollar election — though not as much as his Republican challenger did — in the form of an allied super PAC that spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising in support of his campaign.
Asked two months before Election Day what he would do about "the corrupting influence" of money in politics, Obama said he would "seriously consider" such a push, noting that "even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change."
The effort by several states to make it more difficult for people to vote and the long lines Tuesday outside some polling stations — many of them in urban neighborhoods where Obama was expected to do well — have drawn calls over the course of the campaign and in its immediate aftermath for a broader overhaul of U.S. election laws.
In his conciliatory remarks Wednesday in Chicago, Obama thanked the audience celebrating his win and others watching the broadcast of the event "whether you voted for the first time or waited in line for a very long time."
"By the way, we have to fix that," he said to loud applause.
Nearly as quickly as Obama returns to Washington, he will leave again for a five-day trip to Asia, an annual fixture on his November schedule given the gatherings of regional leaders that he has made a point of attending.
During the trip and its long flights, Obama will likely begin setting out who will serve in his second-term administration and in what jobs. His Cabinet during the first four years of his presidency has been remarkably stable, but there are several high-level departures expected both at the top of key Cabinet agencies and within the West Wing.
Before Obama's win, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made clear their intention to leave sometime after Election Day, setting in motion a search for their successors inside and outside the administration.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice had been considered a leading candidate to replace Clinton. But Rice's involvement in the administration's shifting account of the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, may have undermined her candidacy.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who helped Obama prepare for the debates with Romney, is another contender to head the State Department, as is national security adviser Thomas Donilon, a trusted member of Obama's inner circle who once served as then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher's chief of staff.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to retire to his California walnut farm, although he may stay in his post until the confrontation with Congress over the impending expiration of the Bush-era tax rates and the scheduled automatic budget cuts is resolved. The Pentagon faces $55 billion in across-the-board cuts early next year unless Congress and the White House find a way to offset them.
One Democratic contender to replace Panetta is Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford. Carter was a longtime Harvard faculty member and served in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy.
Michele Flournoy, who served for three years as undersecretary of defense for policy, resigned unexpectedly in February to spend more time with her three school-age children. But she appeared again during the campaign as a public advocate and campaign adviser for Obama on national security issues.
The understated White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew, a former Office of Management and Budget director, is a leading candidate to replace Geithner in a second Obama term. That would create a vacancy running the White House staff, a job that could go to Donilon if he does not go to State or to his deputy, Denis McDonough, one of Obama's longest-serving and closest advisers.
Erskine Bowles, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, has also been mentioned as a possible Treasury secretary, having achieved a level of bipartisan support rare in Washington as co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which recommended ways to curb the federal debt. He has indicated, though, that he is not interested in serving in the Cabinet.
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