a newspaper in Yangon has a front-page picture of Barack Obama
Statesman in the news: a newspaper in Yangon has a front-page picture of Barack Obama after his Myanmar visit in November

At his first inauguration four years ago, Barack Obama proclaimed an end to the “recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics”. He will surely avoid repeating that in his second.

After four of the most bitterly polarised years that concluded in last November’s ill-tempered general election, Mr Obama has had barely a moment to regroup. Honeymoons do not mix well with fiscal cliffs. Mr Obama had to bisect his vacation in Hawaii – his first of 2012 – to help dodge the first cliff. He starts his second term in the knowledge that within six weeks he will be hit by another cliff, a debt ceiling and a potential government shutdown.

It would normally tempt fate to outline a president’s agenda before he does – Mr Obama’s State of the Union address will come within 10 days of the inauguration.

But he already outlined his top five priorities in an interview with NBC in late December. Foreign policy was noticeably absent. Taken together his goals were strikingly modest. Others might call them realistic given Mr Obama will face a hostile Republican Congress for at least his first two years.

They are: preventing tax rises for the middle class, immigration reform, returning the economy to balanced growth, environmentally responsible energy independence and gun control. The last can probably be written off. Mr Obama might be able to tighten background checks and install new tracking systems. But a meaningful gun ban will never get through this Congress. The first – preventing tax rises on the middle class – was arguably achieved in the “mini-deal” on January 2 that preserved the Bush tax cuts for the bottom 98 per cent.

Which leaves the economy, immigration and energy. In each case, there is an ideal Obama scenario.

On the economy he wants new investment in US infrastructure, worker training, research and development and education, while also putting the US on a gentle (growth-preserving) slope to primary fiscal balance.

On immigration he would like a comprehensive deal offering a de facto amnesty to most illegal immigrants and a far wider pathway for highly skilled applicants. And, on energy, he wants a second bite at tackling climate change while reaping the fruits of America’s coming energy boom.

In each case, except for immigration, Mr Obama’s hopes are unlikely to survive contact with the 113th Congress. And, in some, such as boosting spending on US competitiveness and putting limits on carbon emissions, the reality is likelier to be the reverse. It is hard to see how Mr Obama can manage a “cut and invest” budgetary strategy without Republican support. And they will almost certainly be unanimously opposed to another attempt at cap and trade.

That leaves immigration. The odds are that Mr Obama could get Congress to agree on some kind of an overhaul of America’s broken immigration system. Not only are Republicans aware of their terrible – and potentially terminal – electoral deficit with Hispanics and other non-white groups. But it is one issue on which the GOP will be relatively easy to divide. And, in some areas, including the environment, Mr Obama can push some of his agenda through executive action. Pretty much everything else looks like a steep climb.

It is just possible the coming showdown over the debt ceiling will turn into a cathartic event – the two parties may peer into the abyss and see the error of their partisan ways. But it is very unlikely. In practice, the odds are that Mr Obama will be able to avoid a catastrophe – namely a prolonged government shutdown or a sovereign default. But the animosity between the parties will remain or get worse. It would be a surprise were Congress to spend 2013 negotiating a grand fiscal bargain that overhauled the US tax code and put Medicare and Social Security on a sound footing. Actually, it would be a shock.

Which brings us to the missing item. Presidents rarely get as much done on the domestic front in their second term as their first. In Mr Obama’s case that would be quite hard – whatever their flaws, the $834bn stimulus, the healthcare reform and the Dodd-Frank financial re-regulation were major bills. Much of Mr Obama’s second term will be about their consolidation. But the defining issues of the next four years are likelier to be about foreign policy.

Partly this is because Mr Obama will have far more latitude talking to foreigners than to US lawmakers – Congress’s ability to control foreign policy is limited. And partly it is because events will dictate the agenda. Managing the new leadership in China, the continued game of nuclear hide and seek with Iran and the “pivot to Asia” – to name three – will demand time. They will also offer Mr Obama the chance of leaving an imprint on the world. He may even get to define an “Obama doctrine”. The world stage will loom larger as his term progresses.

At the start of his first term Mr Obama urged America to “put away childish things”. During his second, he will feel increasingly tempted to jettison Washington’s toys for the grown-up role of statesman.

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