It ought to be clear what President Barack Obama’s second term will bring. In the 2012 election, both Republicans and Democrats agreed that the country faced a clear choice between two alternatives. The GOP ticket advocated a return to the constitution’s vision of a society of free individuals, and the Obama campaign offered a vision of cradle-to-grave government guarantees. Obama having won, the path forward ought to be clear.

Yet Obama’s vision has run into an immovable obstacle: not House Republicans, who are weakened by division despite returning with a majority; but, rather, reality. There is no money left to achieve what Obama wants do to, or to pay for commitments he has already made; neither is there the capacity in the federal government to carry out his new regulatory plans, nor the will among the general public to tolerate more of them.

Already, the president’s policy agenda is overshadowed by a looming fight over the debt ceiling, the federal budget, and the deferred cuts to defense and social spending in the “sequester.” Unemployment remains stubbornly high and economic growth is sluggish. Abroad, the threat of a nuclear Iran looms larger than ever, and the president’s claims to have set Al Qaeda on a path to defeat are belied by the group’s resurgence in Africa.

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