WASHINGTON — The 2012 State of the Union Address is set to bring back to the Obama administration the heady days of 2009.
The president and his top aides have the same spring in their step, the same self-assurance — well-earned, say their friends; cocky, say their foes — that they brought in from Chicago four years ago. That mood was blunted by exhausting successes and painful setbacks in 2009 and 2010 that none want to relive. But when when Obama speaks to both houses of Congress Tuesday night, his new, take-no-prisoners approach is expected to be on full display.
From a bold legislative agenda to equally bold public statements, the administration is taking its electoral victory and running with it. And White House officials say Obama will make clear that what he wants to see is action, from immigration reform to climate change to gun control.
"There is no question that there is a vigorous debate in Washington, D.C., over a range of policy disputes," said one White House official previewing Obama's speech. "It can be vigorous, but it can't be endless."
Perhaps more than any aide, Obama senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer has become the embodiment of what one top Republican called "the White House's F-you attitude" in recent weeks. On Twitter, Pfeiffer, the former communications director, has taunted "skeeters" — those who doubt Obama's self-proclaimed affinity for skeet shooting — as much as he has the Republican leadership. He's gone after pundits and expressed outrage at GOP lawmakers.
To allies, Obama is brazenly testing the theory that public opinion has shifted on the issues — that the what used to be the Democratic Party mainstream is now the American mainstream. To opponents, it's hubris: "Pride goes before a fall," mused one congressional Republican. Either way, the administration is also taking a risk by using an election they turned as much into a referendum on Mitt Romney as one on the president to justify its agenda.
Obama is reportedly weighing executive orders on climate change, expanding the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, and taking steps to combat computer hacking — after already taking executive action on gun violence and immigration reform.
But even some Democrats are fretting about the scope Obama's agenda.
"He might be biting off more than he can chew," worried one Democratic operative. "We loved health care, but it meant nothing else happened. Now they're trying to do three things at once, and they might not get any of them."
Others say the threat of another crisis over the sequester at the end of the month will push Obama's priorities to the back burner — especially if lawmakers and the president can't reach an agreement in time.
The takeaway of the State of the Union and Obama's aggressive tone, said another Democratic operative, "is we need to rack up some wins before he becomes a lame duck."
But White House officials are confident they have the wind at their backs — and the support of the majority of Americans.
"This isn't about the size of any mandate the president may have," Pfeiffer said, discussing Obama's broad agenda. "There is simple, quantifiable fact that public opinion on key issues has changed much faster than many in Washington realize. Positions that used to be a source of political strength for the Republican Party are now their Achilles heel electorally."
"We don't view any of this as going big," Pfeiffer added. "It's about moving forward to address real challenges facing the country and delivering on promises made to the public in the recent campaign."
Obama will also push for some less original ideas, according to the White House official — including additional infrastructure funding and other job creation measures.
"The reason some of these common-sense ideas are 'old' is because Congress hasn't acted on these yet," the official said. "The president isn't just going to give up because Congress hasn't acted on them yet."