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Election 2012: How another Obama term might be different

Would four more years of Obama change the Washington dynamic?  A two-part election 2012 report profiles the stark differences and interesting similarities of a second-term Obama White House vs. a  Romney White House – either of which would have to deal with a highly polarized Congress.

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Early in his presidency, Obama swung for the fences – and succeeded, against the odds, in passing the Affordable Care Act, despite the economic emergency he inherited and that still threatens his reelection amid lingering high unemployment and sluggish economic growth. A second term would present more opportunity for bold action, though more on Republican terms than when he first took office.

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"This is a guy who came in here wanting to do big things," Mr. Fenn says. "Everybody thinks he's wedded to some labor union or some senior citizens organization or some environmental group, but if they think he's going to knee-jerk his way through a second term, I don't think so."

And as much as Republicans insist a reelected Obama would feel free to let his true "leftie" self run wild (since he won't face voters again), the more probable scenario is that he would feel less constrained by his liberal base and would be willing to cut deals with the Republicans, analysts say.

"He may end up really ticking off folks on the Democratic side," says Fenn.

Obvious opportunities for dealmaking early in Obama's second term would center on deficit reduction and tax reform. But voters wouldn't know that from the campaign. Both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have only outlined goals, staying vague on details and allowing each to spin the other's plans in equally unappetizing ways.

The better bet is to read Bob Woodward's new book, "The Price of Politics," which shows how far Obama was willing to go in the grand bargain negotiations of summer 2011 – particularly on the restructuring of Medicare, the biggest driver of the nation's unsustainable fiscal path.

According to Mr. Woodward, Obama and House Republicans were willing to raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67, but couldn't agree on how quickly to phase in the change. Another negotiation, between Vice President Joe Biden and House majority leader Eric Cantor, contemplated higher premiums for wealthier seniors.

In 2013, just as a reelected Obama could feel freer to negotiate on deficit reduction, so, too, could congressional Republicans – widely expected to retain control of the House, though with a smaller majority – claim a voter mandate to keep taxes low. But there are lots of moving parts: How much leeway each side would have, given the demands of their respective caucuses, is impossible to predict.

"I'm not deeply optimistic here, I must say," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Still, he paints a scenario in which a reelected Obama enjoys "considerable leverage" in December, during a lame-duck session of Congress, when the nation reaches its so-called fiscal cliff. At the end of 2012, a package of tax increases and dramatic spending cuts are due to take effect, threatening another recession, if agreement isn't reached.

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