HONOLULU — President Barack Obama got what he wanted from his Hawaiian vacation: nearly two weeks away from the spotlight. The peaceful lull ends Tuesday when he returns to Washington to face emboldened Republicans eager to challenge his spending priorities and attempt to repeal his historic health care overhaul.
The first weeks of the new year will be an early test of how the president will deal with a divided Congress, and whether he can build on the victories he secured during the final days of the lame-duck legislative session. And with a host of Republicans readying to run for his job, the administration will simultaneously be laying the groundwork for Obama's re-election bid, which will be run out of Chicago.
Senior adviser David Axelrod plans to head to Chicago this month, with Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, taking his place at the White House. More staff will follow Axelrod to Chicago, though aides have not yet been asked to commit to making the move.
After making only a few brief public appearances during his family vacation in Hawaii, the president was to arrive back in Washington before midday Tuesday, a day before lawmakers on Capitol Hill reconvene. Republicans, having taken control of the House and boosted their seats in the Senate, are promising to take aim at the president's agenda, from his spending plans to his health care overhaul. And they're not wasting any time.
Republicans in the House are planning to vote on a full repeal of Obama's health care law before the president's State of the Union address later this month. However, Democrats will control the Senate and could thwart the repeal drive. And Obama has promised to veto a repeal if it reaches his desk. Even so, Republicans say they will try to starve the overhaul of money and dismantle it piece by piece.
Obama will also face opposition on spending and the debt. Though the president has said the nation's long-term fiscal health must be addressed, he's warned that cutting spending now could be disastrous for the fragile economic recovery.
But conservative Republicans, including many newly elected members of Congress, want to cut spending immediately. The first test of how much Obama is willing to compromise with this wing of the GOP comes in February, when lawmakers have to pass a massive spending bill to keep the government running.
Another critical juncture could come as early as March, when lawmakers vote on whether to raise the debt ceiling. Some GOP lawmakers, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have said they won't vote to raise the debt limit unless there is a plan in place for dealing with long-term obligations, including Social Security, and for returning to 2008 spending levels.
With the debt ceiling at $14.3 trillion, and the debt at nearly $13.9 trillion and growing daily, White House economist Austan Goolsbee said that refusing to raise the limit would have a "catastrophic" impact on the economy.
Despite Republican gains, Obama still holds some leverage — namely a Democratic majority in the Senate that could counter Republican action in the House, and the veto power of the executive branch. He's also coming off a successful run in the final weeks of 2010, having secured wins on a tax compromise with Republicans, a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia and the repeal of the military's ban on gay service members.
White House officials say they see some opportunities to capitalize on that momentum and work with Republicans, including on looming trade deals with Colombia and Panama, and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education act.
In an editorial in the Washington Post Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said lawmakers from both parties are already working together to draft a reauthorization, and said, "few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform."
At the same time Obama contends with a new crop of lawmakers at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, change will be coming to the White House.
Obama spent some of his Hawaiian holiday reviewing a staff restructuring review led by interim chief of staff Pete Rouse. While officials have cautioned that there won't be sweeping changes throughout the West Wing, some shifts will be made quickly after the president's return to Washington.
Obama is likely to name a new director of the National Economic Council later this week or early next week. Top contenders to replace the departed Lawrence Summers are Treasury Department official Gene Sperling, investment banker Roger Altman and Yale University president Richard Levin. The new NEC director will have broad oversight of the administration's economic decisions and could signal a shift in policy as the White House grapples with 9.8 percent unemployment.
Obama's quiet vacation was a stark contrast to his stay here last year, when a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a plane headed for Detroit on Christmas Day. The incident consumed the rest of Obama's trip and raised questions about the nation's terror readiness.
This year, Obama made just two brief public appearances, one to take his daughters for shaved ice, the Hawaiian version of the snow cone, and another when he joined friends and family for dinner at Alan Wong's, a restaurant in the neighborhood where he grew up. The rest of his trip was spent at his rented oceanfront home, the golf course, or a secluded private beach on a nearby Marine base.