Unless he emerges from this, the last major crisis of his first term, with the appearance of political strength and skill in navigating it, he risks losing public confidence that he has the stuff to take the country where he wants it to go in his second term.
More than the specific details of any deal with House Speaker John Boehner and his resistant Republican cohorts on taxes and spending, Mr. Obama needs to demonstrate more steel in confronting GOP obstructionism than he showed in the previous showdown over deficit reduction.
In that earlier round, the president allowed the Republicans to hold hostage the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans. The GOP succeeded in retaining the cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent as well. But throughout his re-election campaign, Mr. Obama insisted that this kind of political bondage must be broken.
With wails of "class warfare" from the opposition ringing in his ears, he repeatedly argued the injustice of middle-class voters facing slashes in bedrock social programs so that the rich could continue to enjoy tax cuts they didn't need to maintain their lush lifestyles.
The pitch might have been overly simplistic, but it got across the message in a campaign in which the Republican nominee was a super-rich business whiz who seemingly dismissed middle- and lower-income Americans as moochers. Tales in the news media of Mitt Romney's second home with an elevator for his cars (and his wife's two Cadillacs) helped make the case for the president.
Having won re-election with that argument, Mr. Obama cannot afford to be seen as yielding on it now if he wants to retain political credibility, particularly among liberal Democrats disillusioned with the president's perceived willingness to compromise with proven obstructionists.
The Republicans' hitherto airtight opposition to raising taxes now seems to be developing leaks, as several key GOP legislators have expressed willingness to break anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist's no-tax pledge. This should stiffen Mr. Obama's spine somewhat. So should growing indications that many Republican politicians have gotten the message of voters, particularly in the Hispanic community, that they want real immigration reform.
This awareness, sharpened by the fact that more than 70 percent of that ethnic bloc flocked to Mr. Obama's support on Nov. 6, presents the president with an opportunity to launch his second term with a major reform that went unachieved, and essentially not seriously addressed, in his first term.
His politically adept pre-election action in giving certain minor dependents of undocumented immigrants a route to escape deportation was a gesture that no doubt encouraged Hispanic voters in his favor. While opposition to further such reform in states on the Southern border remains, it may not be of the dimensions that Mr. Obama had to fight in winning his health care insurance initiative of the first term.
Critics, especially vocal tea party leaders, made Obamacare a household word that became a rallying cry for Republican turnout in the party's 2012 presidential primaries. It was voiced even by Mr. Romney, who sought to deny paternity of the basic plan that Mr. Obama called a model for his own controversial scheme. Fortunately for the president, and unexpectedly, the Supreme Court upheld most of the Affordable Care Act and helped deflate much of the Republican pushback.
The results of the election could likewise take wind out of the sails of a disappointed and temporarily disunited Grand Old Party as it seeks to reposition itself for another four years of President Obama. The party remains, however, a troublesome player in continued divided government on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Obama meanwhile, in facing the fiscal cliff, is going to the country to act on his recent contention that if change is to come to Washington, it must come from outside. The bully pulpit, which served him well this fall leading up to Election Day, seems headed for a heavier presidential workout in his second term.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.