Obama’s Three Challenges for January

Back in the capital, the President faces major battles in January, and beyond

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U.S. President Barack Obama answers questions during a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 9, 2013

President Barack Obama returned to Washington on Sunday after a 2½-week vacation in Hawaii. Waiting for him is an imposing mix of unfinished work and an aggressive agenda for the new year.

Here’s what’s on Obama’s plate for the coming weeks.

1. Obamacare

Shortly after leaving for Hawaii, President Obama’s aides symbolically enrolled him in a health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act, in an attempt to raise awareness ahead of key deadlines and show the Administration’s confidence in recent fixes. While the worst of the Obamacare website woes are behind him and millions of people have gained coverage under the law, the President returns to Washington as questions remain about the law’s sustainability.

After taking six weeks to provide the first enrollment numbers in the Affordable Care Act exchanges, the Obama Administration has been quick to highlight every positive milestone as more people sign up for health insurance through the law. But important questions remain unanswered: How many people have paid for their new coverage? Have enough young and healthy individuals signed up to make the exchanges sustainable?

(MORE: White House Point Man Mends Obamacare Politics)

2. NSA

Edward Snowden’s revelations dominated Obama’s 2013, and in 2014, the American people will finally hear the President respond to them. Obama has pledged to deliver a speech in the next several weeks to respond to the 46 recommendations of his hand-selected review group that studied the National Security Agency’s controversial intelligence program. Already he has rejected one: splitting the job of overseeing the military’s Cyber Command and the NSA into two separate positions. The group also recommended ending a program by which the NSA maintains a database of telephone metadata.

In his speech Obama will have to explain the complex programs to the American public, while trying to mollify a diverse coalition of critics that has brought together libertarian Republicans and Democratic privacy activists.

(MORE: White House Group Calls for Limits on NSA Surveillance)

3. State of the Union

Progressive Democrats and the White House are planning to spend much of the year talking about income inequality, an issue they believe will work in their favor come November’s midterm election. It’s a problem that is close to Obama’s heart, serving as one of the reasons he decided to become a community organizer in Chicago. After five years of intense focus on dealing with the recession and the national deficit, the issue will almost certainly be the centerpiece of Obama’s coming State of the Union on Jan. 28.

For Obama there are two tests inherent in embracing the issue of income inequality: can he avoid alienating more-moderate Democrats who worry about the economic impact of legislation like raising the minimum wage, and can he avoid blowback for raising awareness about an issue he can do little about.

The surest sign the White House and Democrats have struck a chord is that Republicans are rushing to follow them, albeit striking out on their own path. Senator Marco Rubio released a video on Sunday morning calling for a focus on those who are struggling to make ends meet. Representative Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have similarly discussed the issue over the past year, but little has been done about it.

MORE: 4 Takeaways From Obama’s Final Press Conference of 2013