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For Obama, new year means new agenda

WASHINGTON - There will be no parade this time for President Barack Obama. No grand speech from the west front of the Capitol, no fireworks, no glittery balls to kick off the second year of his presidency on Wednesday, as there were for the first.

Just a lot of hard work, an agenda full of unresolved problems and perhaps a more sober sense of just what's possible for the 48-year-old president, who's a little grayer now.

He faces a country that's struggling to find its footing after a staggering recession, a nation that's starting to show signs of growth but is still losing jobs. He looks out at a world where he's made precious little progress, still trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table, and to get the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons and the Iranians to abandon their own nuclear program.

He'll tackle those and other challenges with far less political capital than he had a year ago. His approval rating has sunk and is the second lowest in half a century for any president entering his second year, while his disapproval rating is the highest ever at this point in a presidency.

As a result, his fellow Democrats approach midterm congressional and statehouse elections this year nervous about being tied too closely to his agenda.

Obama may have to change his to-do list in his sophomore year. If he gets a health care bill, he'll pivot to jobs and the economy. Then a new budget, and changes in taxes.

Proposals such as the "cap-and-trade" plan to limit the emissions that cause global warming probably will have to wait. So, too, will overhauling immigration law.

"They have to rethink some things, recalibrate and refocus. They tried to do too much. And he's taken some hits as a result," said Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.

"The conventional wisdom a year ago was that the tectonic plates had shifted, that Obama could win and anything was possible," said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the conservative policy institute Heritage Foundation.

Yet polls show that, despite the 2008 election, Americans remain more moderate to conservative than liberal, and that creates a headwind against Obama's agenda for a more activist national government.

"We are happy with what we've achieved, but we're not satisfied with what we've accomplished," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said, arguing that Obama succeeded in keeping the economy from sinking into a depression while passing such laws as pay equity for women.

He acknowledged Obama enters his second year with less political capital, but blamed that on the economy and insisted that both will come bouncing back.

"If the economy improves as I believe it will over the course of the year, that will rebound to our benefit," he said.

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