As President Barack Obama approaches his second and final term, he will have to decide where to be ambitious, where to be cautious and where to buy time. A look at some of the big issues Obama will have to tackle when he returns to Washington after a Hawaiian vacation:
Nothing lends an issue a sense of urgency like a harrowing tragedy that leaves the nation feeling shell-shocked. Shortly after the Dec. 14 school shooting in Connecticut, Obama said gun control would be a central issue in his second term, and named an interagency task force to recommend anti-violence legislation, with Vice President Joe Biden taking the lead. Meanwhile, pro-gun Democrats and even a few Republicans have expressed a willingness to consider new gun regulations, a shift that many have described as a "tipping point" in the age-old efforts to impose more stringent restrictions on gun ownership.
But the National Rifle Association has made clear it won't play ball. Instead of new gun laws, the NRA's chief executive officer proposed putting armed guards in every school, highlighting the sizable rift between gun-rights advocates and gun-control supporters that will complicate Obama's efforts to get something through Congress.
Obama's Democratic predecessor, President Bill Clinton, pushed an assault weapons ban through the Democratic-led Congress in 1994, prompting fierce pushback from gun-rights groups. Clinton later would credit the NRA with shifting the House majority to the GOP for the first time in 40 years, although other factors including a House bank scandal played big roles, too. The Clinton-era ban expired in 2004 and has not been renewed.
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." Obama and members of Congress left town for the holidays with no clear path forward to avert the combination of across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases that economists have warned could send the U.S. economy teetering back into recession.
The measures are set to take affect at the beginning of January if Congress doesn't act in the final few days of 2012, but high-stakes negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have devolved, with Boehner unable to show he can muster the Republican votes to support a compromise reached with Obama. "God only knows" how a deal can be reached now, Boehner declared before heading out for the holidays.
An even higher-risk conflict may arise in a few months. Congress again must either raise the federal debt ceiling by late February or early March — or see the government default on its loans.
In his first news conference after the election, Obama promised to begin work on a major immigration bill soon after his January inauguration. But with a full plate of other pressing issues, it remains to be seen how much of his attention the issue will garner. After all, immigration reform advocates have criticized Obama for failing to follow through on his promise to make immigration reform a top priority during his first term.
Obama won a big majority of Hispanic votes in both of 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. That could provide an historic opportunity for Democrats, who have long sought comprehensive immigration reform, to reach a deal with Republicans even where previous bipartisan deals have flopped.
The Republican-controlled House already has taken its first steps toward showing it's ready to pursue a new way forward on immigration, voting last month to make green cards accessible to foreign students graduating from U.S. universities with advanced science and math degrees. A more sweeping bill presumably would deal not only with legal residents but also with the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally — a major sticking point in past immigration battles.
Not all of Obama's second-term puzzles are at home. The end to the war in Iraq and the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan present ongoing challenges, as do the civil war in Syria, political turmoil in Egypt and instability and violence in northern Mali. Also, it remains to be seen whether Republican indignation over inadequate security at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya where four Americans were killed on Sept. 11 will continue to vex Obama next year.
The start of the Obama's second term also means a shake-up within his Cabinet. On Friday, Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she steps down early next year. Kerry's nomination is expected to easily clear the Senate, where he has served for the last six years as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
It may not be smooth sailing when it comes to nominating a new military chief. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., considered to be Obama's leading candidate to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is facing intense criticism on a number of fronts, including his views on Israel and Iran, and comments he made in 1998 about an openly gay nominee for an ambassadorship.