Reversing the country's slide into debt: A government shutdown or a catastrophic default on the U.S. Treasury's obligations to its creditors are only the most immediate hazards confronting the White House if it fails to reach a budget deal with the Republican House.
Achieving immigration reform: Like his immediate predecessor, Obama has so far been frustrated in his efforts to broker a compromise between those who want to curb illegal immigration and those seeking citizenship for 11 million undocumented aliens. Can he break the deadlock in his second term?
Managing revolution in the Middle East: Syrians being slaughtered by the tens of thousands; Iranians edging closer to nuclear capability; Egyptians suspended between an Islamist government and revolutionary anarchy. And those are just the appetizers.
Reducing gun violence: The stage is set for a legislative showdown between the National Rifle Association and White House. But will the result be a victory for the majority who favor tighter regulation of firearms, or the latest in a long line of presidential retreats on gun control?
Electing a successor committed to his vision: Ronald Reagan effectively extended his own tenure by greasing the skids for his hand-picked replacement. Can Obama do the same?
Five trials to test Obama's leadershipIt's hard to guess how historians will grade Barack Obama's presidency without knowing what pop quizzes lurk in his second term.
A terrorist attack? An environmental disaster that begins in some nation Americans have never heard of and mushrooms into a global threat? A financial panic that freezes credit markets and halts commerce in its tracks?
Any of these could hijack Obama's own agenda for the next four years.
But barring an unforeseen crisis on the scale of 9/ll, Obama's legacy will likely rest on how skillfully he contends with five challenges awaiting him in his second term.
Here's what we hope to see in each of those policy arenas:
• Reversing the country's slide into debt:
Obama has failed in two attempts to strike a grand bargain that would stem the growth of the federal budget deficit -- once in the summer of 2011, when a tentative deal between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner collapsed for lack of support among rank-and-file Republicans, and again this month, when Obama won the fight to raise taxes on households earning more than $450,000 a year but pushed a climactic showdown over spending cuts into February.
Failure to reach a more comprehensive agreement before the current extension runs out could trigger a government shutdown or even a default on U.S. debt payments, although Obama seems to have won a tactical victory Friday when House Republicans backed away from their threat to force such a default by the end of next month.
But the more crippling costs of continued stalemate would be cumulative. Without an agreement to stem the growth of spending on defense and Medicare, those two deficit drivers will consume an ever larger share of government revenue, leaving less and less money for everything else.
Obama has tapped Republican Chuck Hagel, his contentious choice for secretary of defense, to marshal bipartisan consensus for a reduced military footprint. Voters will know negotiations are getting somewhere when the AARP is howling as loudly at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
• Reducing gun violence:
The coming showdown over gun control is a battle of Obama's choosing; he vows to bring the full powers of his office to bear on behalf of an ambitious agenda that includes banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, repealing restrictions that make it harder to trace firearm sales, and expanding research into the causes of gun violence.
Obama wouldn't be the first president to be bested by the NRA. But his decision to make this fight a primary focus of his second term raises the stakes for the White House, especially if the Democratic-controlled Senate proves a major obstacle to reform.
• Achieving immigration reform: After reducing the deficit, establishing a path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants is the most conspicuous unfinished business of Obama's first term. But Mitt Romney, who campaigned for the presidency on a pledge to increase deportations, is back home in La Jolla, and congressional Republicans are eager to build bridges to an expanding and alienated Latino constituency.
It adds up to the best chance for bipartisan progress on immigration reform since Ronald Reagan signed a bill granting legal residency to 3 million undocumented aliens -- and Republicans have an incentive to play ball before the next congressional elections in 2014.
• Managing revolution in the Middle East:
Iran's nuclear aspirations and Syria's ongoing civilian slaughter dominate the headlines, but the entire Middle East region is a powder keg. Iran, Israel and eight Arab countries in the region will conduct national elections in the next year, and advances by hardliners in any of them could make a volatile situation worse.
Obama will be hard-pressed just to stay ahead of tomorrow's news until some of the fragile governing arrangements that emerged from last year's Arab spring are more stable.
• Electing a successor committed to his vision:
The 22nd Amendment guarantees that Obama's second term will be his last. But other presidents -- Reagan is the most recent example -- have extended their influence and fought off late-inning irrelevance by anointing like-minded successors.
Obama may have neither the desire nor the opportunity to tilt the Democrats' next presidential nomination to a favored candidate in 2016. But handing the baton to a Democratic successor would further cement whatever political victories he achieves in his second term. In the American presidency, as constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar notes, "Nothing succeeds like succession."
This time I watched the festivities on television in Montreal Quebec. For his first Inauguration, I was there, in Washington Dc. I was one of the many, freezing my ass off, standing in crowds, but it was worth it. I kept thinking, if my grandfather was alive, he'd be right here with me.