President Barack Obama's ambitious agenda for a second term will leave little room for dillydallying -- probably just 18 months or so before potential successors in both parties put their ambitions above most other considerations.
As Obama aims for the history books, his dealings with Congress will need as much backing from his organized supporters as he can muster -- and a heavy dose of intercession from his vice president. Joe Biden managed to accomplish what the president couldn't at year's end: cutting the deal to avoid sequestration, the so-called fiscal cliff.
Biden's 36 years of heavy experience in the Senate clearly trumped the two years Obama spent there before winning the White House. Since then, the shortness of his congressional tenure has manifested itself in a lack of success with Republicans and even some liberals in his own party. Now, Biden -- who directed the task force that drafted a set of recommendations aimed at reducing gun violence -- must take on the extraordinarily difficult chore of leading the legislative effort.
At this moment, the chances of new gun control legislation -- beyond a few simple measures -- appear slim to none, even in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and daily reports of shootings from coast to coast. The president's goal of legislation banning the sale of assault weapons and perhaps even expanded clips faces almost certain defeat. The pro-gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, still possesses the clout to defeat such a measure.
The proposal most likely to win adoption would force everyone trying to purchase a firearm -- no matter where -- to undergo a background check. That would close the gun show loophole.
Lesser parts of the recommended plan -- like the sharing of mental health information and increased muscle for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- might survive despite NRA objection. But this won't be a quick affair with the pro-gun forces pulling out all the stops.
Meanwhile, the White House is finally looking to adopt a commonsense approach to immigration, to tackle tax reform and to slow the accelerating costs of entitlements -- all while dealing with the still-shaky economy and searching for a long-time solution to the deficit problem. Obama should have spent more time on some of these issues during his first term instead of so much on health care. But he didn't do so, for obvious political reasons. Now that Obama is freed from that restriction, he seems to want to be the liberal the Republicans always accused him of being.
His inauguration speech, listing many concerns including climate change, was quick to draw the liberal label in newspaper, television and Internet coverage. But the fact is, much of what he wants doesn't fit under any philosophical heading, liberal or conservative. The ideology comes in his approach to addressing them.
Republicans, especially those in the House, have little affection for him personally -- nor he for them. But they are between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as they figure out how to meet their own challenges, mostly changing demographics that threaten to reduce them to a permanent minority. They just may be more willing to cooperate, as they were on increasing the debt limit. But that depends on how delicate a touch the president and his new White House team can bring to these controversial issues and whether time constraints allow for drawn-out negotiations.
Once again, Biden may provide the link. Though his outspokenness and verbal fumbling sometimes threaten his own and his boss's policies and political standing, Biden nevertheless has shown a keen understanding of congressional machinations. He has a friendly sincerity and a wide circle of friends in Congress -- Obama does not -- and is respected as a former chairman of two of the Senate's most important committees, Judiciary and Foreign Relations.
Whatever, the president's hair may be completely white before this second term ends.
(Dan Thomasson ia former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)