State of the Union Stakes: Guns, Debt, and Climate Change Give Obama Shot at Immortality

Gun violence, climate change, and $16 trillion in U.S. debt are major issues of life and death that give President Obama the opportunity to become a truly transformational president. Pity his legacy if Obama fails, or fails to try, starting with the Feb. 12 State of the Union address.

This week's headlines reflect the high risk and reward of striving: Vice President Joe Biden met with the gun-rights lobby in the quest for a post-Newtown solution to American-on-American massacres; 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the contiguous United States; and dysfunctional Washington is no closer to a responsible budget deal that requires sacrifice from all voters, including the middle class.

These are the kind of problems that, when fixed, get presidential faces carved in granite. If he's willing to adjust his leadership habits (more on that later), Obama has a shot at immortality.

First, the political landscape is ripe for bold ideas and big change:The public is overwhelmingly discontented with the direction the country is headed, and is craving outside-the-box leadership. In times of tumult, voters are likely to forgive a president, if not reward him, for compromises made in service of solutions. And if Americans can ever again be summoned to a spirit of shared sacrifice, this would be that moment.

Second, polls show a majority of voters want Washington to address guns, debt, and the climate. True, there's no easy agreement on exactly how to solve the problems, but events of the past few weeks have at least galvanized the country behind the need for answers.

Finally, Obama has the post-partisan, pragmatic instincts (not to mention a sense of history) to pull it off. The fact that he didn't live up to his potential in a first term doesn't mean he won't in a second.

"He has a rare opportunity to make a real mark," said John Baick, professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.

Gun control has been off-limits since the 1994 and 2000 elections, both Democratic defeats that were partly blamed on President Clinton's efforts to impose modest regulations on guns. Since then, Obama's party has grown less wary of gun control, as moderate Democrats from pro-gun states lost congressional sway. The wave of mass shootings, particularly the December slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., gives Obama the opportunity to test the public's appetite for gun legislation.

A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted after the Newtown shootings suggests that Americans overwhelmingly favor banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips and requiring background checks at guns shows. Most want laws governing the sale of guns to be more strict.

Banning semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles is favored by a minority of voters, just 44 percent, making it a test of Obama's ambition: The way to leave his mark on the guns issue is to support an assault-weapons ban and use the bully pulpit to shift polls in favor of it.

The White House says that Obama will unveil his guns package in his State of the Union address.

Climate change was a point of division between Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney. The president declared climate change a global threat, acknowledged that the actions of humanity were deepening the crisis, and pledged to do something about it if elected. His case was bolstered this week when scientists concluded that last year's 55.3 degree average demolished the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit.

The temperature differences between years are normally measured in fractions of a degree. The New York Times story had this chilling factoid: Nobody who is under 28 has lived through a month of global temperatures that fell below the 20th-century average.

"We see it in our own backyards and cornfields and our own rivers, streams and lakes exactly what scientists have been warning us about for years: We've got to reduce carbon emissions or it's just going to get worse," said Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resource Defense Council, a relatively moderate environmental group. The council is urging Obama to use the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, which produce 40 percent of carbon pollutants.

Will Obama rise to the challenge? "We don't know," Deans said, "but we certainly hope that he will."

Asked in light of the latest grim news on temperature change what the president planned to do about it, White House press secretary Jay Carney e-mailed me: "You think I should preview the president's agenda a month before the (State of the Union) to the National Journal?"

Until that address, we're left to wonder whether Obama will change his leadership habits enough to seize a place in the pantheon.

Will he fight? Not just stand firm against extreme Republicans, but be willing to anger hard-core liberals to forge "win-win" compromises--the type of deals that give both parties a claim to victory and reward voters with results.

Will he lead? Not just delegate negotiations and task forces to Biden and others, but leverage the full force of his enormous skills and office.

It will take a rare mix of humility, hubris, and chutzpah. Pity us all if he doesn't try.