WASHINGTON — Barack Obama returns to a transformed Washington next week, with empowered Republicans bristling for a defining budget fight and the calendar relentlessly pointing to the 2012 election.
President Obama will swap the peace of his Hawaii vacation for a stormy new political season, looking more resilient and self-confident than many thought possible with his political stock replenished by year-end victories.
But the rare period of bipartisanship between Democrats and Republicans which produced those gains — dubbed by Obama a “season of progress” — may be fleeting as his presidency enters a challenging new narrative arc.
Though Obama got his way or compromised with his foes on taxes, a Russia nuclear treaty and on allowing gays to serve openly in the military, political fissures are evident on funding the government and the huge deficit.
Still, Obama, who concluded after the Republican rout in mid-term elections in November that voters want an honest attempt to forge bipartisan solutions, is positioning himself in the political center.
“I’m not naive. I know there will be tough fights in the months ahead,” Obama said in a year-end press conference, previewing the likely tone of his State of the Union address in January, which will frame his strategy.
“But my hope heading into the New Year is that we can continue to heed the message of the American people and hold to a spirit of common purpose in 2011 and beyond.”
The political environment in which Obama enacted most of his agenda in just two years was changed beyond recognition in November’s polls.
Gone are wide Democratic majorities in Congress which speeded historic health care and finance reform, and an 800-billion-dollar stimulus plan.
Instead, Obama faces a Republican House of Representatives stocked with conservatives demanding spending cuts after a Tea Party grass-roots uprising, and a reduced Democratic hold on the Senate.
Key issues — the 1.3-trillion-dollar budget deficit and a 2011 government budget blocked by Republicans — tug at the doctrinal fault line between the parties, making confrontation certain.
Obama must also defend previous victories.
Republicans cannot repeal health reform while Obama has a presidential veto, but plan instead to block White House efforts to fund its implementation.
“We will do everything we can to drive a stake through the heart of Obamacare,” Colorado House Republican Doug Lamborn told Fox News.
But the White House may prove a resourceful foe, as Obama and his administration appeared to confound criticisms that they were weak at wielding presidential power in the year-end flurry of legislation.
Inside the West Wing, thoughts are turning towards Obama’s bid for a second term in 2012 — several key aides are expected to decamp shortly to Chicago to fire up a reelection campaign machine.
Obama is vowing more domestic travel to reconnect with the US public.
The ticking political clock may also bear on legislative tactics.
With an 858-billion-dollar tax cut deal with Republicans, Obama may have infuriated core Democrats, but he courted independent voters he needs to win reelection.
And by repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military, Obama shored up his own base of disenchanted liberals.
Republicans meanwhile face a dilemma.
The strategy of obstruction that helped Republicans at the polls in November may now anger voters seeking results.
So, Republican speaker-elect John Boehner may have a motive for seeking some accommodation with the White House early in the new Congress.
However, Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, has already said his top priority is depriving Obama of a second term, and the unfolding Republican presidential race will likely pull the party to the right.
While much has changed in Washington, there is one constant: despite approval ratings just below a respectable 50 percent, Obama is still paying the political price of a slowly recovering economy.
Few Americans have felt much of a rebound from the worst recession since the 1930s and unemployment is nudging 10 percent.
Obama had a weak hand in November, telling voters things were getting better despite the evidence of their own lives.
Fighting a presidential election on similar ground could doom his hopes of the second term without which history judges few presidencies a success.
The coming year may also see a defining moment in Afghanistan policy, as US surge troops struggle to expand on modest progress reported in a strategy in December.
Obama may have to go forward without Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a key ally in the Pentagon and a master Washington powerplayer, who is expected to resume his retirement later this year.