by Jules Witcover

The first weeks of the second Obama administration have signaled that a more assertive president now sits behind the Oval Office desk than the one who settled in there after his first inauguration four years ago.

The starry-eyed neophyte of January 2009, who believed that through reasonableness and compromise he could move the country forward, now seems to have been replaced by a more realistic leader. Barack Obama appears convinced he must end-run his determined opposition in Congress by going out to the people to advance his second-term agenda.

After laying out a more specific set of domestic objectives, notably including immigration reform and stronger policies against gun violence, Obama has begun lobbying the American people campaign-style on both, with Vice President Joe Biden as his chief lieutenant in the latter effort.

While personally turning inward, the president has dispatched Biden to European capitals carrying a message of continued American engagement in international commitments. He also has installed former Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as his new secretary of state, soon to carry the same message to foreign leaders long known to Kerry's as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Not only is Obama personally going to the country to sell his second-term objectives. He is also re-mobilizing the effective political ground operation that snatched his re-election by out-organizing Mitt Romney campaign, and is now focused on pushing that new agenda.

The president obviously has his eye on the congressional elections of 2014. He hopes through his own exertions and those of Team Obama to break the Republican Party's obstructionism of his first term, paving the way for more accomplishments in his remaining presidential years.

In foreign affairs, Kerry and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, if confirmed as secretary of defense, will be two strong defenders of a Obama central objective: modifying the country's carryover role as international policeman, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee pilloried Hagel for past critical statements about Israel and the U.S. troop surges in the Middle East. Nevertheless, he demonstrated a willingness to take oratorical bullets in support of Obama's less bombastic foreign policy, which public opinion at home favors.

Obama's inauguration address, which in some important ways echoed the late George McGovern's "Come Home America" plea of four decades ago, infuriated war hawks of the opposition party. But it rekindled enthusiasm of liberal Democrats who had become increasingly disappointed in Obama's first term.

After eight years of a Republican reign that saw its foreign policy reputation shattered by overreaching misadventure, and its domestic economy wrecked by similarly unmonitored financial policies, Obama now seems set on a corrective course in both arenas.

At the same time, a Republican Party jolted by the defeat of a vulnerable presidential nominee with glaring political weaknesses, and by the party's own myopia toward a changing electorate, is now occupied trying to put the broken pieces together. Obama's new second-term initiatives come as his personal approval ratings have reached a majority, even as the ratings for the obstructionist Congress have nearly struck rock bottom.

The president's strategy of getting out of Washington is in keeping with his pronouncement that it's the only way of getting Congress to abandon its resistance to change. But the concept is based on the hope that voters can be sufficiently mobilized to force action by their representatives, heavily lobbied by special interests like the NRA.

For once, Obama seems to have an impassioned public interest on his side. Hispanic voters who backed him overwhelmingly in November are demanding immigration reform. The whole nation remains in shock over the Newtown tragedy and polls say at least some strong gun-control legislation is favored.

But in both cases, closing the sale remains, with much hard work ahead over a still-resistant terrain on Capitol Hill. Obama appears at last to have turned a corner in his own willingness to take strong stands and fight for them. As a lame-duck president, he can't afford to wait for a possibly more conciliatory Congress after the next midterm elections to get what he's after.


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Obama's Second Coming | Politics

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