WASHINGTON — If he wins, President Barack Obama would try to apply the leverage of his victory toward a lasting economic revival on his terms, guided by political lessons learned and the legacy he wants.
Because Obama has made his race against Mitt Romney about two competing visions for the nation, he would interpret a victory as a mandate to pursue economic recovery and debt reduction his way, adamant about raising taxes on families making more than $250,000.
With jobs still in soaring demand, he would push to steer money toward energy development, education and worker training, manufacturing support and infrastructure.
The contours of Obama's second term would be formed by how his first one ends in December. The outcome of efforts by Obama and Congress to avoid an economic whammy of spending cuts and tax increases — all set for January — will influence whether they could reach a much farther-reaching debt-reduction deal later. Obama wants to get one done in the first six months of 2013.
That, in turn, would shape everything else.
In the first year of a new term, Obama would also plunge into one of the big unmet promises of his first term, immigration reform. He would put his capital into fixing a complex and politically explosive problem, meaning finding the votes and the path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, all without mass deportations or amnesty for those who broke the law.
Starting this time without a gut-wrenching recession and wars in two countries, Obama would be freer to pursue the agenda he wants.
Yet the forces working against him would not be going anywhere: formidable opposition from Republicans, fatigue within the White House and the fractured politics of the nation.
On foreign affairs, Obama's priorities include familiar threats, most urgently the international drive to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. A second Obama term would mean closing out the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, deepening U.S. engagement across Asia, targeting terror networks and keeping a post-Arab Spring Middle East from unraveling.
For all his ideas, Obama will need some new people around him.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner plan to leave. It is widely expected that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will not stay on for a second term.
Change is also expected within the top staff ranks of the White House, where loyalty is rewarded and outsiders have had trouble piercing the bubble.
For all the chants of four more years, a second-term president like Obama would really get less than two years to swing for big change at home.
Then lame-duck realities set in, power starts to slip and attention shifts to the next election. In his favor, he would never again need to worry about getting re-hired by voters.
Obama's personal style is unlikely to differ. America knows him. He prides himself on his steadiness.
What he does plan to change is the way in which he pulls the American people into his personal political process. After operating in emergency legislative mode in the first half of his term, and then seeing his party get a midterm drubbing, Obama seemed to realize he was personally disconnected from precisely the people he was trying to help.
"The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside," Obama said in reflecting on his first four years. "So something that I'd really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress."
Those people would see a president who is bound to look a little grayer and sound more reflective across another term, as he has in his first. He already claims a rank of seniority on the world stage, where elections and political turmoil have led to major leadership changes from Europe to Asia. And the team surrounding Obama each day will look different, too.
Historians who know Obama know he is mindful of leaving a consequential legacy. An immigration overhaul and perhaps tax changes would help cement a legacy built on his health care law, an economic recovery, Wall Street regulation, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the appointment of two Supreme Court justices so far.
Trouble is, Obama is almost certain to be operating in the same divided government that stymied him in the second half of his term.
Republicans have a chance to win control of the Senate or at least shrink the Democrats' margin. And the House appears likely to remain safely Republican in the coming election.
Obama's political calculus is that his re-election itself would force Republicans to heed the American people and work with him because they will no longer need to try to defeat him. On a matter such as immigration, he is betting that Republicans will have to compromise with him or risk alienating Hispanics and undermining their party for decades.
It is all assuming a lot on his part.
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