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Obama's new job: reinvention

To avoid gridlock, he will need to master a new political reality – and win a battle of public perception.

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Challenging Obama would be tricky

Given Obama's unique position in history as the first African-American president, it may be trickier for a fellow Democrat to challenge him the way Sen. Edward Kennedy challenged Carter in 1980, another factor that weakened Carter's reelection bid.

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And there are many reasons for Obama to be hopeful about his future. His job approval rating is not too far below 50 percent, and the Republican Party is just as unpopular as the Democrats. A Pew Research Center/National Journal poll released Oct. 25 found majority approval of only two GOP agenda items: allowing more oil and gas drilling off US shores and allowing private accounts in Social Security. Repealing health-care reform came in at 49 percent. Freezing all government spending except for national security won 43 percent support. Conducting major investigations of the Obama administration came in at 42 percent.

The Republicans may overreach, but Obama can't count on that. Instead, he is looking inward. Expect a staff shake-up in the White House. At his Nov. 3 press conference, Obama took responsibility for an economy that has "not made as much progress as we need to make." But he did not apologize for any of the big agenda items – foremost, the economic stimulus and health-care reform – that have caused him so much grief.

Mistakes acknowledged

In a recent New York Times interview, he admitted that he let himself look too much like "the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat." He admitted he learned too late that "there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects." And he suggested that he should have allowed the Republicans to "insist on the tax cuts in the stimulus," instead of proposing them himself.

But those are tactical matters, and he faces a big-picture challenge. Come January, to avoid gridlock, he must govern "less like the liberal antithesis of Ronald Reagan and more like the heir to Bill Clinton, whose agenda he has regarded hitherto as excessively compromised and incremental," writes former Clinton policy adviser William Galston.

"No later than his 2011 State of the Union address," adds Mr. Galston, head of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, "we will find out whether Obama possesses the one trait that every successful statesman needs: the ability to adjust to changing circumstances without selling his soul."