HONOLULU — Leaving behind a year of bruising legislative battles, President Barack Obama enters his fourth year in office having calculated that he no longer needs Congress to promote his agenda and may even benefit in his re-election campaign if lawmakers take little action in 2012.
Devoid of any major policy pushes, much of the year will instead focus on the biggest goal of all: winning a second term. The president will keep up a robust domestic travel schedule and aggressive campaign fundraising and use executive action to try to boost the economy.
Unlike the partisan, down-to-the-wire fights over allowing the nation to take on more debt and sharply reducing government spending that defined 2011, there are almost no must-do pieces of legislation facing the president and Congress in the new year.
The one exception: negotiations in early 2012 on a full-year extension of a cut in the Social Security payroll tax rate from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. Democrats and Republicans are still divided over how to implement the extension. But the White House believes GOP lawmakers boxed themselves in during the pre-Christmas debate on the tax break and will be hard-pressed to back off their own assertions that it should continue through the end of 2012.
Once that debate is over, the White House says, Obama's political fate will no longer be tied to Washington.
"Now that he's sort of free from having to put out these fires, the president will have a larger playing field. If that includes Congress, all the better," said Josh Earnest, White House deputy press secretary. But, he added, "that's no longer a requirement."
Aides say the president will not turn his back on Congress completely in the new year. He is expected to once again push lawmakers to pass elements of his jobs bill that were blocked by Republicans last fall.
If those efforts fail, the White House says, Obama's re-election year will focus almost exclusively on executive action. Earnest said Obama will unveil at least two or three directives per week — a continuation of the "We Can't Wait" campaign the administration began this fall — and seek to define Republicans in Congress as gridlocked and dysfunctional.
Obama's election year retreat from legislative fights means this term will end without significant progress on two of his 2008 campaign promises: comprehensive immigration reform and closing the military prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Piecemeal presidential directives are unlikely to make a sizeable dent in the nation's 8.6 percent unemployment rate or lead to significant improvements in the economy, the top concern for many voters and the issue on which Republican candidates are most likely to criticize Obama.
In focusing on small-bore executive actions rather than ambitious legislation, the president risks appearing to be putting election-year strategy ahead of economic action at a time when millions of Americans are still out of work.
"Americans expect their elected leaders to work together to boost job creation, even in an election year," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Still, Obama and his advisers are beginning 2012 with a renewed sense of confidence, buoyed by a series of polls that show the president's approval rating climbing as Congress becomes increasingly unpopular.
And they believe his victory over Republicans in the payroll tax debate has boosted his credentials as a fighter for the middle class, a mantle Obama will look to seize on in his Jan. 24 State of the Union address.
Aides say that while the president is just starting to brainstorm ideas for the speech, he's certain to strike a populist tone and tap into middle-class frustrations with growing income inequality. And he's expected to focus on similar themes when he's campaigning around the country.
Obama's campaign-driven, domestic-travel blitz starts in Cleveland on Wednesday, the day after GOP presidential hopefuls square off in the Iowa caucuses.
He will also keep up an aggressive re-election fundraising schedule, with events already lined up in Chicago on Jan. 11.
Campaign officials say Obama will fully engage in the re-election campaign once the Republicans pick their nominee.
He will focus almost exclusively on campaigning after the late summer Democratic National Convention, barring unexpected developments at home or abroad.
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Among the issues that could disrupt Obama's re-election plans: further economic turmoil in Europe, instability in North Korea following its leadership transition and threats from Iran.
The president's signature legislative accomplishment will also come under greater scrutiny in the new year, when a key provision in his health care overhaul is debated before the Supreme Court. White House officials say Obama will not shy away from the measure. Instead, he will double down in his defense of it and highlight new aspects of the law that go into effect in 2012.