WASHINGTON | It's hardly a secret Barack Obama, like every president no doubt, muses about his ultimate legacy and spot in the presidential pantheon. He approaches his second term confronting tough and shifting challenges that will play big roles in shaping the rest of his presidency and his eventual place in history.
In the coming months, Obama will have to decide where to be ambitious, where to be cautious, and where to buy time.
He draws political strength from his surprisingly easy re-election in a bad economy. It's partly offset, however, by Republicans' continued control of the House, plus their filibuster powers in the Senate.
Some of the big issues awaiting the president's decisions are familiar, long-simmering problems. They include immigration and the need for a tenable balance among taxes, spending and borrowing.
Another issue, gun control, jumped to the national agenda's top tier this month following the massacre of first-graders and teachers in a Connecticut school. And the issue of climate change remains unresolved.
Veteran politicians and presidential historians say it's almost impossible for Obama to "go big" on all these issues. It might prove difficult to go big on even one. While some counsel caution, others urge the president to be as bold and ambitious as possible.
"Americans are yearning for leadership," said Gil Troy, a presidential scholar at McGill University.
As a president dealing with policy, he said, Obama has generally failed to give "that visionary, powerful address that we came to know and love and expect in the 2008 campaign."
Other presidential historians, however, think Obama is severely constrained by political realities. They say he will have to carefully pick and choose which goals to emphasize in his second four years.
"I see Obama as almost uniquely handcuffed by circumstances," said John Baick of Western New England University. The number of big, unresolved problems facing the nation, coupled with a deeply divided public and Congress, he said, leave Obama with fewer viable options than most presidents have enjoyed.
At best, Baick said, the U.S. government "is a gigantic cruise liner, and the most he can do is keep us from hitting ice bergs."
Politicians of all stripes say Obama's first priority is to resolve the deep partisan divide over tax-and-spending issues, exemplified by repeated impasses over two years that led to this week's showdown on the "fiscal cliff."
An even higher-risk conflict may arise in a few months. Congress again must either raise the federal debt ceiling or see the government default on its loans.