obama-thinking-web.jpgAs President Barack Obama approaches his second and final term, he will have to decide where to be ambitious, where to be cautious and where to buy time.

Having returned to Washington after a Hawaii vacation, some of the big issues Obama will have to tackle include:

Gun control: Nothing lends an issue a sense of urgency like a harrowing tragedy that leaves the nation feeling shell-shocked. Shortly after the Dec. 14 school shooting in Connecticut, Obama said gun control would be a central issue in his second term, and named an interagency task force to recommend anti-violence legislation, with Vice President Joe Biden taking the lead.

But the National Rifle Association’s chief executive officer proposed putting armed guards in every school, highlighting the sizable rift between gun-rights advocates and gun-control supporters that will complicate the president’s efforts to get something through Congress.

Fiscal clif: Obama and members of Congress face a combination of spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect if Congress doesn’t act in the final few days of 2012. With House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, unable to muster the Republican votes to support a compromise, “God only knows” how a deal can be reached now, Boehner declared before heading out for the holidays. Congress also must either raise the federal debt ceiling by late February or early March, or see the government default on its loans.

Immigration: Obama promised to begin work on a major immigration bill soon after his January inauguration. But with a full plate of other pressing issues, it remains to be seen how much of his attention the issue will garner.

The Republican-controlled House voted last month to make green cards accessible to foreign students graduating from U.S. universities with advanced science and math degrees. A more sweeping bill presumably would deal not only with legal residents but also with the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally.

National security: Iraq and Afghanistan present ongoing challenges, as do the civil war in Syria, political turmoil in Egypt and instability and violence in northern Mali. Republicans may continue to vex Obama over inadequate security in Libya where four Americans were killed on Sept. 11.

The start of the Obama’s second term also means a shakeup within his Cabinet. On Friday, Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she steps down early next year.Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., considered to be Obama’s leading candidate to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is facing intense criticism on a number of fronts.