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Is Barack Obama an imperial president?

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Even though Obama will never face the voters again, he has plenty of incentive to boost his game. Now he's playing for his legacy, and the judgment of the history books. Politically, he's playing for the final national election of his presidency – next November's midterms, in which Democratic control of the Senate is at risk. Reclaiming the House from the Republicans is close to impossible. Divided government is Obama's near-certain reality for the rest of his presidency.

Still, keeping the Senate in Democratic hands remains critical to Obama's legacy: It will allow him to confirm presidential nominees – including most judges, who have lifetime tenure – with a simple majority after Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid engineered a rule change last November.

Restoring public confidence in Obama's trustworthiness and competence as an executive is also critical, as the president tries to move beyond the "Obamacare" fiasco and National Security Agency snooping. Republicans are already firmly lashing the health reform's woes to Democratic candidates' necks. But nothing will impress voters more than a sense that their personal financial situation is improving. Cue Obama's focus on what he calls "the defining challenge of our time," growing inequality and a lack of upward mobility. It will be a central theme in the State of the Union message, including a call for Congress to boost the federal minimum wage.

Early in the new year, White House officials were cautiously optimistic that the December budget deal may signal new momentum toward bipartisan cooperation, at least in future budgetary and fiscal matters. Republicans would rather keep the spotlight on Obamacare woes than risk public blame for another government shutdown or more brinkmanship over the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department says will be reached in late February.

But one point is certain: It's a new day for Team Obama. John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton and a turnaround artist, has put on his cape and swooped into the West Wing for a one-year tour as a counselor. The president has also brought back the highly regarded Phil Schiliro to oversee the continuing health-care rollout and made deputy communications director (and Capitol Hill insider) Katie Beirne Fallon his legislative affairs director.

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