Obama prepares to hit reset button

U.S. President Barack Obama leaves the briefing room of the White House in Washington on Oct. 16, 2013.
President Barack Obama leaves the briefing room of the White House after the Senate passed a bill to reopen the government on Oct. 16, 2013.

President Obama returns to work this week looking to revive his second term and regain the momentum after a frustrating 2013. And the next few weeks could be pivotal.

To get his presidency back on track, Obama badly needs some policy wins—even small ones—despite unyielding Republican opposition. To that end, Obama will kick off the year with a concerted focus on economic populist themes.

In his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, he’ll call for raising the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour, as well as other measures to combat growing economic inequality, the White House has said.

Support for a minimum-wage hike figures to be among Democrats’ top issues for the looming 2014 midterm campaign. If Obama is to have any chance of making progress on his lengthy to-do list for the next three years—in addition to reducing economic inequality, immigration and climate change still demand urgent attention—his party will need to avoid major losses in November.

Obama also is pushing Congress to extend unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million jobless Americans who lost their benefits late last month after lawmakers failed to renew them. On Tuesday, he’ll hold a White House event featuring people who lost their benefits.

“Denying families that security is just plain cruel,” Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “We’re a better country than that. We don’t abandon our fellow Americans when times get tough — we keep the faith with them until they start that new job.”

A bipartisan effort to extend benefits was scheduled for a Senate vote Monday early evening. Republicans have said they won’t support it without offsetting spending cuts.

Also in the coming weeks, Obama will hit the road to tout the benefits of the Affordable Care Act—in part an effort to neutralize promised conservative attacks on the law ahead of the midterms. By some estimates, Obamacare has now allowed 10 million Americans to access affordable insurance—a good-news story the White House is eager to tell after the law’s troubled rollout. Monday afternoon, the White House held a press call to highlight the law’s impact in Texas, which has the largest uninsured population in the country.

Perhaps the thorniest near-term challenge for Obama will come in mid-January, when he has pledged to unveil reforms to the National Security Agency’s controversial spying programs. Among the possible changes: Requiring phone companies to collect and store data on millions of Americans’ calls, rather than allowing the agency itself to do so.

Obama’s commission on voting also is set this month to release recommendations for trimming long lines at the polls and other election administration problems. The bipartisan panel was formed to help make good on Obama’s Election Night 2012 pledge to fix the problem, after some Floridians waited up to eight hours or more to cast their ballots.

The president will tackle these issues while adjusting to some personnel changes at the White House. John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton, has come on board as a counselor, with a mandate to find ways to use executive power to advance Obama’s agenda. And Phil Schiliro, a former top congressional aide who already has done one stint as an Obama White House adviser, returns to quarterback implementation of the health-care law.

Things won’t get any easier next month. In late February, Obama will need Congress to once again raise America’s borrowing limit, in order to avoid a catastrophic default. Republicans have signaled that they plan to use that leverage to extract more policy concessions from the White House, as they tried unsuccessfully to do last fall.

Watch a Hardball discussion of Obama's prospects for 2014: