By Amie Parnes - 01/05/14 06:00 AM EST
President Obama returns to Washington on Sunday hoping to build momentum for a thick agenda that didn't go very far during the first year of his second term.
The president will have has hands full: Right off the bat, he'll be faced with questions about the rollout of ObamaCare and a major address on the NSA in the middle of January.
He’ll also be making a big push to extend federal unemployment benefits as the White House seeks to make income inequality a major issue in this year’s midterm elections.
After a rocky 2013 that saw his poll numbers sag, Obama will look to re-launch his second term during a State of the Union address later this month that will set the tone for the midterm elections.
White House officials acknowledge there’s much to do on the heels of the president’s two-week vacation in Hawaii.
The president's advisers hope comprehensive immigration reform, perhaps Obama’s number one goal of his second term, can still be in play in 2014.
“It remains a top, top, top priority,” a White House official said.
And Obama’s most pressing concern is to retain the Senate. Republicans believe they can win the six seats they’d need to take over the upper chamber, something that would force Obama to play defense in his remaining years in office.
To bolster the chances for Democratic Senate candidates and Obama’s agenda, White House aides are looking to tap into the themes of fairness and equality—which they believe helped Obama win the presidency twice.
Part and parcel of that effort is the immediate push on extending unemployment benefits, an efffot that started before Obama flew to Honolulu. Obama is expected to hold an event to push the issue early this week.
In the same vein, they plan to aggressively push to hike the minimum wage to $10.10, backing a recent proposal by Congressional Democrats.
Both issues are intended to telegraph a message about the inequality gap in the country, underlining differences with Republicans that the White House and Democrats think can be exploited in an election year.
“It’s a fight we’re happy to have,” said the White House official.
The official pointed to Obama’s address last month when he talked about the ever-expanding gap between the wealthy and the poor.
“I believe this is the defining challenge of our time,” Obama said in the December speech. “It drives everything I do in this office.”
The speech served as an outline of sorts for what the president’s agenda might look like in the next couple of years.
“You’ll hear a lot more of that in 2014,” the White House official said.
One former senior administration official said the inequality gap fight is a particularly good one in an election year, and that the issue is “ripe for leadership.” It also serves as a pivot for a White House that has been buried in the recent criticism of the healthcare law.
The income debate “is a bit of a distraction from the recent healthcare headache,” the former senior official added.
Obama will have to spend the coming months ensuring that healthcare reform, his signature legislation to date, is running smoother than it had been and doesn’t become a liability to Democrats running in the mid-term election.
Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary for the Republican National Committee said Obama’s policies from 2013 could come back to haunt him in the new year.
“There’s no doubt President Obama will be spending 2014 attempting to clean up his disastrous policies of 2013 that left Americans distrusting him and the Democratic party,” Kukowski said.
White House officials say Obama will continue to discuss healthcare, sprinkling events in with other issues in the coming weeks.
Administration officials remain optimistic that immigration reform can pass both chambers, particularly because Republicans are looking to appeal to Hispanics after a lackluster turnout during the 2012 election cycle.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has indicated a serious interest in considering an immigration bill in the coming year, adding cause for hope for Democrats at the White House.
“The Speaker remains committed to addressing the issue this year and we’ll be doing so with a deliberate, step-by-step approach,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner. “Success will depend on whether Democrats want to play a constructive role or just play politics.”
But White House allies say while they are hopeful about the chances of immigration reform — one former senior administration official said optimistically there’s a 50-50 chance —the best chance might be a piecemeal approach.
The two things that will occupy much of Obama’s bandwidth in the coming weeks are two addresses: how he’ll tackle the NSA recommendations and the State of the Union, a speech aides have been working on since last month.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council at the White House said the NSA review is “continuing” and that Obama will be addressing it in the coming days.
White House allies say that they expect this year to be an improvement over last.
Asked what Obama can hope to accomplish this year, the first former senior administration official predicted that Obama would eek out a small immigration bill, along with tax reform and “some trade agreements.”
“I’m just not sure after that,” the former official said.