President Barack Obama, heading back to Washington where a new divided Congress awaits, said Tuesday he expects Republicans will try to stall his reforms but ultimately will work with him to improve the battered economy.

"You know, I think that there's going to be politics, that's what happens in Washington," Obama told reporters on Air Force One after departing the island state of Hawaii where he spent 10 days on holiday with his family.

He returns to the capital a day before the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives convenes on Wednesday, with the party's leaders announcing they will take early aim at health care reform, a signature legislation of Obama's presidency, and seek to rein in runaway government spending.

Obama appeared to acknowledge that a chilly reception by emboldened Republicans awaited him, as they pledged tough oversight of the administration.

"They are going to play to their base for a certain period of time, but I'm pretty confident that they're going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people and that we're creating a competitive economy for the 21st century -- not just for this generation, but the next one," Obama said.

The president did not respond to a question about Republican plans to repeal the health care bill, as the party aims to roll back key Obama gains in the 22 months before the next election.

"My expectation, my hope, is that (incoming speaker of the house) John Boehner and (Senate minority leader) Mitch McConnell will realize that there'll be plenty of time to campaign for 2012 in 2012, and that our job this year is to make sure that we build on the recovery," he said.

"We've started to make good progress on that during the lame duck (congressional session following last November's elections), and I expect to build on that progress when I get back."

Obama enjoyed an unusually quiet vacation over the year-end holidays, and his comments on the presidential jet were the first extended quotes directly to reporters since arriving in Hawaii.