WASHINGTON -- As the sun rises on his second inaugural, President Obama is already a significant figure in American history. And he is poised to become a legend within the Democratic party.
He is the nation's first black president. He pushed a sweeping health care bill through Congress. And he got reelected. President Barack Obama is on a trajectory to be an inspiration to new generations of Democrats, in the mold of Kennedy and FDR.
Obama’s second term will be the crucible in which his legacy will either be burnished or brought down a notch.
"He had a legacy as something unique only in getting elected. He already had something," Robert Gibbs, the president's adviser and White House press secretary for the administration's first two years, told The Huffington Post.
"Regardless of what happened, he was always going to be something that was totally different," Gibbs said. "Now I think though he gets the real opportunity to add something other than election night in 2008 to that legacy."
But Obama’s second term will also put a spotlight on two tensions that are bound to grow. As the president begins to think about his place in history, he will be in unspoken competition with the man whose wife he defeated for the Democratic nomination in 2008, who may bid to succeed him in 2016. And second, some of the biggest policy challenges of the president’s second term are going to require him to take on his own base.
The first point of friction is one that will consume political observers for years: Is former President Bill Clinton content to play second fiddle to Obama in the Democratic hall of icons?
It was Clinton, after all, who put Kennedy at the center of the TV ad introducing himself to the nation as a presidential candidate in 1992.
But many Democrats have come to view Clinton as the set-up man for Obama.
At a campaign rally in mid-October, near Steubenville, Ohio, the retired Rev. Wayne Price, of Macedonia Baptist Church, introduced Clinton -- who was there campaigning for Obama -- this way:
"O Lord," Price said, "as President Bill Clinton comes clearing the way this afternoon, as John the Baptist did for a mighty man of God and principle, we pray that you would anoint him with words of wisdom."
Clinton loyalists say there is room for both men in the Democratic pantheon.
"I don't see any of this as in conflict with Clinton at all," said Paul Begala, a White House adviser to Clinton who raised money for a super PAC supporting Obama in the last election. "This is a relay race. It's not a sprint of one against the other."
Yet there are subtle challenges in the way Begala and other Clintonites talk about the two presidents.
"Clinton completely reinvented the Democratic party, in a way that no one has since FDR," Begala said, pointing out that Democrats had lost five of the previous six presidential elections before 1992 and that it is "hard to really express how down Democrats were."
"Obama inherited a reasonably strong party, a very strong party, I think built by Clinton," Begala said. "It's not that he exists because of Clinton. It's that we all exist because of who came before us."
Begala acknowledged that Obama moved the Democratic party beyond what Clinton achieved.
"[Obama] took us into the 21st century. His coalition is so impressive. Clinton was very strong with African-Americans and Latinos. So was Obama. But Obama has really just exploded the Democratic advantage with young people,” Begala said. “The interesting thing is Asian-Americans voted overwhelmingly against Clinton, and overwhelmingly for Obama. He's growing in all the political constituencies that a political party wants to grow in. This guy is a phenom.”
But Begala questioned whether the Democrats can hold the gains Obama brought them in 2008 and 2012.
"If the Democrats can lock that in -- again, this is what Clinton used to say but it applies to Obama, too. Clinton used to say, 'I don't just want to be Michael Jordan, who played the game real well, but then when he retired, you know, the Bulls lost. I want to set up something more permanent," Begala said. "And I'm quite sure that's the way President Obama is viewing things. And the question will be, 'Can Democrats hold the Obama coalition without Obama?'"
Greg Craig, a veteran of Democratic politics who was a close adviser to former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), coordinated Clinton's impeachment defense in the late '90s, but then endorsed Obama in 2007 when he was running against Hillary Clinton, and was Obama's chief White House counsel during his first year in office.
Craig is an Obama guy now, but he agreed with Begala that the question of whether Democrats can sustain Obama’s gains is a big one.
"That's the Washington, D.C. parlor game of the moment, discussing whether the Obama coalition is a coalition that's going to survive Obama and carry on, or is it just uniquely Barack Obama's achievement?" Craig told The Huffington Post. "Or does the vote of the women and the young people and the African-Americans and the gays, you know, and the Hispanics survive and go on and create additional Democratic majorities in the future?"
"And that's too early too tell, much too early to tell," Craig said.
Gibbs said he was confident that if Obama passed immigration reform, it would go a long way toward putting the new Democratic coalition on solid footing.
"[Obama] has broadened the Democratic coalition politically more because of who he is. And I think quite frankly … he'll cement even the broadening of the Democratic party in the next year or so by getting comprehensive immigration reform done," Gibbs said.
The dynamic between Obama and Clinton promises to be one of the more fascinating political dramas of the next decade and beyond, especially as long as the 42nd president remains healthy and active.
Clinton alienated many in his own party by going for Obama's jugular during the 2008 Democratic primary, even comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson and accusing the Obama campaign of playing the race card against him and his wife, Hillary, who was Obama's chief competitor then.
But Clinton clawed back a great deal of good will by campaigning relentlessly for Obama during the 2012 campaign, culminating in his triumphant speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Going forward, whether Hillary Clinton, the outgoing secretary of state, decides to run will impact Bill's legacy. It would keep him firmly planted in the public spotlight, and give him his own historic achievement, as the first man to be both president and the spouse of a president.
Clinton will want to be known as the man who rescued the Democratic party from its doldrums, bringing it back from a swing too far to the left and making the idea of government action palatable again, while associating Democrats with economic growth.
"It's always a little controversial, because it's not classic liberal. But I do think he showed the Democratic party that there is a way of governing and campaigning that appeals to independent voters, even some conservative voters, and a way of putting a working majority together for Democrats," Joe Lockhart, Clinton's White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000, said in an interview with HuffPost.
Obama will want to be known as the man who brought the nation back from near disaster, expanded the Democratic party's reach and helped level the playing field for those who did not have power or resources, expanding opportunity for the lower and middle class.
There are three kinds of issues on the second term to-do list: first-term accomplishments that need to be followed through on, like health care; first-term failures that have become second-term initiatives, like immigration; and potential landmines to avoid and -- in the event they explode -- manage. This last category is most likely to include trouble on the foreign policy front, or the kind of scandal cum congressional probe that tends to bedevil second-term presidents.
Gibbs said implementing the health care bill, moving immigration reform legislation through Congress and passing substantive tax reform and entitlement reform deals are the keys to a successful second term for Obama.
"The onus is really on the administration to ensure [health care] is done correctly, because I think it is hugely important," Gibbs said.
Obama faces a Republican majority in the House that is determined to try to dismantle his signature achievement. A source close to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) told HuffPost that top Republicans believe there is bipartisan support to repeal key elements of Obamacare, including the Independent Advisory Payment Board, the medical device tax and the tax on health insurers.
Obama and his advisers also want to be known for keeping the country out of a second Great Depression. Economic growth is a key factor in his second term, and another downturn would not only bring great pain to many Americans, it would damage his reputation for the ages.
It is concern over the nation’s fiscal health that will drive the Obama White House toward its biggest showdowns with the progressive left.
For example, the White House sees energy as a huge economic factor, especially the potential for massively increased domestic production of oil and natural gas. But it is currently trying to figure out how to balance this domestic energy boom with environmental concerns.
Then there is the idea of tax reform. Obama appears to be changing the actual definition of the term from lowering marginal rates and closing loopholes to just doing the latter. But there will still be pressure on him to do both, since this concept has a lot of bipartisan support.
And then there’s entitlements. Gibbs has encouraged the administration to proactively propose changes to Medicare and Social Security, since "entitlements are going to be restructured at some point."
"Somebody needs to speak a little bit of truth to power to the Democratic party and say, 'Who do you want to restructure this?' Because if you keep saying no to anything, we will not always have a Democratic president and 55 Democratic senators. You know?" Gibbs said. "President Paul Ryan does entitlement reform a whole lot different, or president Marco Rubio does it a whole lot differently than President Barack Obama."
One starting point for Obama’s confrontation with his own base on entitlements is over using chained CPI to calculate annual increases in Social Security benefits. Chained CPI is a tool for measuring inflation that is more accurate than the current method but which would slow the rise of benefits. Obama offered to include it as a concession in talks with Republicans over the fiscal cliff in December, but it was not ultimately included.
Private conversations with administration officials indicate they will move again to support chained CPI, despite outcries from groups like AARP.
But every step that the president goes beyond chained CPI will bring him into another great tension of his second term: like with energy, entitlements is an issue with great impact on the country’s fiscal health, but it is also one that is causing great division and disagreement on the left.
And if Obama wants to compromise on these two big issues, he will have to weigh how much he wants to chip away at the monument to him that Democrats are already building in their minds.
This article is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read other posts in the series, click here.
Also on HuffPost:
May 1, 2011: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 8, 2009: President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009. The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 3, 2009: President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, Dec. 3, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 4, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a baby while greeting guests during an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 26, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oval Office Chase
July 9, 2012: President Barack Obama runs around his desk in the Oval Office with Sarah Froman, daughter of Nancy Goodman and Mike Froman, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, July 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 13, 2012: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave goodbye to President Shimon Peres of Israel on the North Portico of the White House following the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony and dinner in his honor, June 13, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
April 23, 2012: President Barack Obama tours the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, and Sara Bloomfield, museum director, April 23, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2012: President Barack Obama talks with Betty White in the Oval Office, June 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Venus In Transit
April 24, 2012: President Barack Obama stops to view the moon and Venus before boarding Marine One in Boulder, Colo., April 24, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
'Sweet Home Chicago'
Feb. 21, 2012: President Obama joins in singing "Sweet Home Chicago" during the "In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues" concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 20, 2011: "The Obama family was scheduled to tour the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio before dinner one night. But when heavy fog rolled in, they canceled the visit. After dinner, the fog had dissipated somewhat so they decided to make the drive up the mountain. It was quite clear when they arrived and then the fog started to roll back in. I managed to capture this silhouette as they viewed the statute one last time just before departure." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2011: "The top photograph shows the President having a water gun fight with his daughter Sasha on her birthday weekend at Camp David. Unbeknownst to me, David Lienemann captured a similar photo of the Vice President on the very same day." (Official White House Photos by Pete Souza and David Lienemann)
Dec. 11, 2011: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, right, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 14, 2011: President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 11, 2011: "This photograph by Chuck Kennedy has to catch your eye. It shows Guinness Book of World Records holder John Cassidy performing a balloon act for First Lady Michelle Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room following a Let's Move event." (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
June 21, 2011: First Lady Michelle Obama meets with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa at Mandela's home in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
May 29, 2011: President Barack Obama greets Hugh Hills, 85, in front of his home in Joplin, Mo., May 29, 2011. Hills hid in a closet during the tornado, which destroyed the second floor and half the first floor of his house. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 9, 2011: President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 10, 2011: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk towards the White House after observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Arizona shooting, on the South Lawn, Jan. 10, 2011. White House staff joined the President and First Lady for the moment of silence.(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 7, 2011: President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia, and members of the Australian and American delegations look up at the presidential seal in the Oval Office ceiling following their bilateral meeting, March 7, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 31, 2010: "The skies opened up on Memorial Day outside of Chicago. When the lightning began, the Secret Service told the President that it was too dangerous to proceed. He took the stage by himself and informed the audience that his speech was canceled and that for everyone's safety, they should return to their busses. Later, he boarded a few of the busses to thank them for attending and apologized for not being able to speak." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 20, 2010: President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 28, 2010: President Barack Obama and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf, left, inspect a tar ball as they look at the effect the BP oil spill is having on Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., May 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 21, 2010: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff, react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 31, 2010: President Barack Obama practices his pitching form with personal aide Reggie Love and Jake Levine in the Rose Garden of the White House, March 31, 2010. The President threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day of the baseball season prior to the game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Feb. 1, 2009: "During a Super Bowl watching party in the White House theatre, the President and First Lady join their guests in watching one of the TV commercials in 3D." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
March 15, 2009: "The Obama family was introduced to a prospective family dog at a secret greet on a Sunday. After spending about an hour with him, the family decided he was the one. Here, the dog ran alongside the President in an East Wing hallway. The dog returned to his trainer while the Obama's embarked on their first international trip. I had to keep these photos secret until a few weeks later, when the dog was brought 'home' to the White House and introduced to the world as Bo." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Moment Of Reflection
Jan. 20, 2009: "President-elect Barack Obama was about to walk out to take the oath of office. Backstage at the U.S. Capitol, he took one last look at his appearance in the mirror." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 19, 2009: "Snowball in hand, the President chases Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on the White House colonnade. To escape, Rahm ran through the Rose Garden, which unfortunately for him, was knee-deep in snow." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 10, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal for the first time at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 16, 2010: "President Obama had called on the two former Presidents to help with the situation in Haiti. During their public remarks in the Rose Garden, President Clinton had said about President Bush, 'I've already figured out how I can get him to do some things that he didn't sign on for.' Later, back in the Oval, President Bush is jokingly asking President Clinton what were those things he had in mind." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama watches as members of the National Naval Medical Center's Marine Wounded Warrior basketball team play on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Shoot The J
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama takes a shot during a game with Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Aug. 16, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Aug. 16, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
April 21, 2009: President Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy walk down the South Lawn sidewalk at the White House April 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 10, 2009: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on July 10, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
July 13, 2009: President Barack Obama feigns a punch while talking about health care reform with Nancy-Ann DeParle, Peter Orszag, Phil Schiliro and Larry Summers in the Outer Oval Office, July 13, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 26, 2009: President Barack Obama jokingly reacts to news that staffer Nora Becker will be leaving to pursue a joint MD and PhD in healthcare economics, during the White House staff picnic on the South Lawn, June 26, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 2, 2009: President Barack Obama and former First Lady Nancy Reagan walk side-by-side through Center Hall in the White House, June 2, 2009. To the left of Mrs. Reagan hangs her official White House portrait as First Lady. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts a story to President Barack Obama, Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, outside the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: President Barack Obama tours the Egypt's Great Sphinx of Giza (left) and the Pyramid of Khafre, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Behind The Camera
Feb. 18, 2009: President Barack Obama takes aim with a photographer's camera backstage prior to remarks about providing mortgage payment relief for responsible homeowners at Dobson High School, Mesa, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 21, 2009: President Barack Obama walks into the Oval Office for his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. His Personal Aide Reggie Love stands nearby. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)