Raring for a fight, Obama heads into his second term swinging

President Obama is picking fights with Republicans two weeks before he begins his second term, suggesting he intends his dealings with the GOP to be much different from his first four years in office.

After avoiding a heated confirmation tussle over Susan Rice last month, Obama on Monday took a more combative tack with some Republicans by nominating former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to serve as secretary of Defense. 

He is also insisting he will not negotiate over raising the debt ceiling, and is prepared to consider broad reforms to the nation’s gun and immigration policies that could put Republicans in a difficult spot.

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The recent choices and chest-thumping tactics echo some moves Obama made at the start of his presidency, when he memorably told Republicans that elections have consequences. But the president moved away from taking an overly in-your-face approach for much of the last few years, until his last few legislative battles, when he embraced the use of campaign-style events to build a public case for his priorities. The White House believes the tactics helped him leverage victories on the payroll-tax and fiscal-cliff fights.

“He’s got his sea legs now, [and he is] sending a strong message that he has the support of the American people behind him, and he’s basically saying, ‘Deal with it,’ ” said Martin Sweet, an assistant visiting professor of political science at Northwestern University. 

But his tenor of late has angered some Republicans, who feel Obama is the problem and isn’t even attempting to compromise.

“After a status quo election, the mandate from voters is to find common ground and work together,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Instead, the president rejected reasonable compromise and sought to impose his will on Congress. All he has to show for it is unfinished business and strained relationships, even with his allies.”

Senior administration officials acknowledge that now that Obama will never have to seek reelection again, it is easier to take a tougher line with Congress on policymaking. 

“Does that give the president a little more latitude? Sure,” one senior administration official said. 

The official also conceded that some might see Obama’s tack on the debt ceiling as “a little confrontational.” But the official argued the president extended an “olive branch” in nominating Hagel — a Republican — as Defense secretary. 

On guns, Obama’s “desire is simply to find reasonable people who want to work with him to make our communities safer,” the official said.

The Obama administration intensified its approach on the issue this week, with Vice President Biden taking part in a string of meetings on gun control that come on the heels of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Biden is to present recommendations to Obama about the issue by the end of the month, which the president will then turn into proposals he will “push without delay,” a White House official said in an email on Tuesday.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said while Obama is “tougher” and “more combative,” he is channeling former President Bill Clinton in pursuing centrist policies.

Hagel, Zelizer pointed out, is “a solid Republican,” and in the “fiscal cliff” talks Obama accepted permanent tax cuts for households with annual income below $450,000 while signaling a willingness to move forward on spending cuts. 

“It’s about where to cut, not whether to cut,” Zelizer said.

Sweet notes that Obama feels he has leverage with Republicans and is on an election high, and that the tone now coming from the White House is a hint of what’s to come in the second term.

“It’s like the weather,” he said. “Tomorrow will look a lot like today.”