Spoiler alert: Barack Obama might still be a consequential foreign-policy president if he’s lucky, willful, and skillful. But it’s his domestic legacy that will make or break his presidency. Health care — his signature legacy issue — will look much better if the economy improves, driven by a revived housing market and rising employment, and of course if some broader deal can be struck on entitlements and taxes. Immigration reform and gun-control legislation driven by a functional bipartisanship would cement that legacy. He’d be an historic rather than a great president.
Two clocks tick down in a president’s second term: the drive for legacy and the reality of lame duckery. Obama’s political capital will diminish quickly. Where, how, and on what he wants to spend it is critical. The Middle East is violent and volatile and may yet suck him in, but if he can avoid it, he’ll try. This was a State of the Union address that stressed fixing America’s broken house, not chasing around the world trying to fix everyone else’s. The future of America isn’t Cairo or Damascus; it’s Chicago and Detroit.