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Does Obama's Second-Term Agenda Need Beefing Up?


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. President Obama is set to take the oath of office for a second time. He has promised an ambitious agenda for the next four years. NPR's Mara Liasson tackles the question of whether it's ambitious enough.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama is in very good political shape. He won decisively in November; his approval ratings are the highest since his first months in office; and he's fresh off a year-end political victory on the fiscal cliff. So now what?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I hope, and intend, to be an even better president in the second term than I was in the first.

LIASSON: That will mean achieving his goals, which White House communications director Dan Pfieffer defines as completing the project Mr. Obama started when he first ran for president.

DAN PFEIFFER: At the end of his term, if America's more competitive in the world; if the middle-class worker has a chance to save for retirement, save for college, own a home; then that will be a tremendous success.

LIASSON: As the second term begins, the building blocks of that vision include comprehensive immigration reform, new gun laws, and a deficit and tax deal with the Republicans. There will be high-pitched conflict with Congress over all three. But unlike the first term, where the White House saw only two modes of existence in Washington - gridlock or genuine compromise - in the second term, says Brookings analyst Bill Galston, the White House envisions a new way.

BILL GALSTON: The administration has now adopted a third strategy, which rests on the proposition that the House Republican majority can be broken; and the unity of that majority can be destroyed and that legislation will move with a strong Democratic vote, plus a minority of the majority.

LIASSON: John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's second-term chief of staff, says President Obama came to this conclusion the hard way.

JOHN PODESTA: President Obama's the guy who comes to the conversation thinking that we can all be rational, we can all find honorable compromise. But the lesson he learned is that his opposition is not likely to operate in what used to be the normal political mode of give and take; that you're going to have to show that you're willing to be as tough as they are.

LIASSON: The other part of the president's second-term approach is to engage the public. Senior adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett says that what the Obama team learned during the December fight over the fiscal cliff.

VALERIE JARRETT: At the end of the year, when finally, at the 11th hour, at the 12th hour, we were able to get Congress to approve averting the fiscal cliff, that happened because of people just saying, come on, we want you to work together. That's what the election was really about. And we will be doing that much more aggressively, in a second term.

LIASSON: That's certainly what the White House thinks helped them win the lame duck standoff over the fiscal cliff. But, says Bill Galston...

GALSTON: The question facing the White House is whether that model of how to get business done, is going to turn out to be viable on a broader front of issues. And if it is, they're going to do very well. And if it isn't, they're going to be butting their heads against a wall.

LIASSON: What worked for the fiscal cliff may or may not work as well on immigration; guns; or the upcoming fiscal crises of the debt ceiling, sequester and government shutdown. Immigration just might be the easiest to achieve, especially since the Republicans' landslide defeat with Hispanic voters has caused them to rethink their opposition to an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

And on guns, while the president has laid out a sweeping set of policies, he's also signaled that he'll settle for what he can get. That leaves the fiscal battles - the most difficult fights of the second term, and as John Podesta explains, the key to the president's legacy.

PODESTA: He's got to get more growth in the economy. And I think that he's laid out an economic program for the American people that emphasizes investments in infrastructure, in innovation, in education. That's what people are looking to him to do.

LIASSON: Resolving the fiscal crises is the president's only hope of getting the revenue he needs, to make the investments he wants. And here's where Bill Galston sees some shortcomings in President Obama's second-term plan.

GALSTON: If you look at the focus - particularly of year one of the second term - it doesn't correspond all that closely to what the country most needs to get done.

LIASSON: What the country needs, says Galston, is long-term economic growth; and a fiscally sustainable course that would come from a truly big deal on entitlements and taxes. Both are key to the president's holy grail - a prosperous, secure middle class.

GALSTON: He doesn't get that unless he can overcome the fiscal roadblock. And he's not going to be able to do that unless he goes bigger than the debate of the first year is likely to be.

LIASSON: So it's possible that President Obama's second-term agenda, as big and ambitious as it looks, might not be ambitious enough.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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