The cheering supporters at his victory rally may still be hoarse, and his inauguration is three frosty months away. But Barack Obama has already secured the most important achievement of his second term: Winning it.

That judgment may seem to deflate the moment. But it actually sums up the best reason for Obama’s re-election: The survival of his first term was at risk. The Romney-Ryan campaign was, at heart, a promise to undo the past four years (and much of the twentieth century besides).

True, Mitt Romney might never have had sixty Republican senators to fully repeal health-care reform—especially not after the pounding GOP Senate candidates took on election night. But he would have had all kinds of ways to delay, weaken, and undermine it, as well as another chance, after his first midterm election, to kill it for good. Other Obama first-term initiatives are now safe, too: Wall Street reform will be implemented, not gutted. EPA measures against greenhouse gases, which might have ended up on the chopping block, will proceed and perhaps even expand. And then there’s the Supreme Court, which would surely have gained a few more crusading conservatives under Romney. Obama’s first four years were as consequential as any presidency since Lyndon Johnson’s, but without four more, they might largely have been erased.

Yet positive results may still be hard to come by in a second term. Until at least 2014, Obama will face a divided Congress: undisciplined allies in the Democratic-controlled Senate and unshakeable antagonism—if not contempt—in the Republican-controlled House. This has never been a recipe for functional governance.

Still, it’s worth taking a look at some of the big questions the country will face over the next four years. What might be done in the way of new legislation, particularly on climate change and immigration? Will Obama cut a deal on the deficit—one that, crucially, breaks the grip of anti-tax cultists on the GOP?

The most important issue he will face is climate change. (Though both candidates avoided the topic during the campaign, Obama mentioned global warming’s “destructive power” in his victory speech.) But there is unlikely to be major climate legislation until at least 2014, since any bill will almost certainly die in the Republican-controlled House. Speaker John Boehner has described the idea that carbon emissions harm the environment as “almost comical.” By one estimate, more than half the current House Republican caucus does not believe in man-made global warming, and the incoming caucus won’t be much better. Some might respond that the House could pass a moderate bill by mustering a majority of Democrats and moderate Republicans, but there is little in recent history to justify that optimism.

It remains to be seen whether the same will hold true of immigration reform. The numbers from election night should trouble any politician who thinks this issue can be delayed much longer: Latinos rose to 10 percent of the 2012 electorate, and they broke for Obama in staggering numbers—more than 70 percent. So it was not surprising that Obama mentioned immigration in his victory speech, first referencing DREAM-style measures and later referring more broadly to “fixing our immigration system.” What was surprising was John Boehner’s remark after the election that he was “confident” that “common ground” could be found on this issue. When I worked as an immigration reporter, I would often ask policy experts and activists their opinion on when comprehensive immigration reform could be passed. Most of the time, their answers boiled down to “whenever Democrats retake the House.” That didn’t happen this election. Many Senate Republicans are already on the record in support of reform, but it remains to be seen whether recent events will start changing minds in the House. It would be far too optimistic to assume that comprehensive reform is around the corner.

The kind of gridlock I’ve described may give the dispiriting impression that the next two years will resemble the past two. Well, why shouldn’t they? It’s true that congressional Republicans have failed in their top priority (Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, candidly admitted in 2010 that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”), but the basic incentive structures favoring gridlock haven’t changed. Recent political science research suggests that the opposition parties face a win-lose, not a win-win, scenario when reaching a bipartisan compromise with the president. For Republicans, then, bipartisanship is not only bad policy; it’s bad politics. Unless voters start to punish the GOP for inaction, it has strong incentives to continue obstructionism with an eye toward 2014 and 2016. The president knows this, even though political etiquette compels him to claim, as he did in June, that after his reelection, “the fever may break.”

This may all seem like a rather pessimistic view of things to come. And indeed, there is no reason to think that the general strategy of Republican obstructionism will give way to compromise and cooperation. But recent history also demonstrates that there is potential for deals if both parties have strong incentives to come to the table—as happened when the Democrats successfully pushed for a payroll tax cut extension at the end of 2011. For once, Republican resistance to the White House (on a tax cut, no less!) had become sufficiently costly to make a deal palatable.

If this reading of Republican behavior is correct, it strongly suggests that the GOP has strong incentives to cut a deal with Obama. And that deal may well constitute one of the biggest policy decisions of Obama’s presidency.

The subject of these negotiations is the badly named “fiscal cliff.” This ungainly term refers to two events, both of which are slated for year’s end: The expiration of a slew tax cuts, including the Bush tax cuts, and the automatic, across-the-board spending reductions that resulted from the “sequester” deal during summer 2011’s debt-ceiling crisis. This mix of spending cuts and tax hikes would result in an anti-Keynesian economic shock that could destroy the delicate economic recovery.

The pressure for something—anything—to be done about this has led to an unexpected scenario in which President Obama holds all the cards. As Jonathan Chait recently explained in New York magazine, Obama may not like the wide-ranging spending cuts, but he’ll be able to delay them slightly in order to buy time and minimize their overall harm. In contrast, with trillions in automatic tax hikes looming, Republicans are facing the prompt arrival of their bête noire on January 1. Republicans despise the tax hikes, and they cannot delay them. Obama may not like the spending cuts, but they’re hardly his worst nightmare, and he has some room to maneuver around them. As a result, the GOP will be much more anxious to cut a deal than the president.

This gives Obama substantial leverage to cut taxes relative to the baseline of the automatic hikes and still extract trillions in badly needed tax revenue from his normally implacable opponents. Republicans might hate to cut a deal with the president, but they’ll hate the alternative even more.

The opportunity presented by this situation should not be underestimated. After all, it may be two years until Obama can do much in the way of new reforms or programs—at least any that require the cooperation of a historically uncooperative Congress. The panic that will grip Washington between now and January affords the president a chance to raise tax revenues, cut spending in a more balanced way, and slash the deficit. And given the balance of power in the negotiations, there is substantial reason to think Republicans will be willing to strike a relatively favorable deal.

That scenario may not exactly tug at liberal heartstrings. But with an emboldened, toughened Obama squeezing every ounce of advantage from a rare opportunity for gain, it will set the appropriate tone for the difficult slog that lies ahead. The next four years won’t be like the last four. They won’t feature as many huge steps forward, but they will consolidate the first term’s gains and prevent disastrous steps backward. Sometimes that’s what progress looks like.

Published in the 2012-12-07 issue: 

Nathan Pippenger is a freelance writer in Berkeley, California.

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