"He's got a tough task, with the House still Republican and not having 60 votes in the Senate," said Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University, who said the likelihood of continued gridlock makes it probable that Obama's second-term goals will be fairly modest.
Indeed, experts are divided over whether Washington's inertia will worsen over the coming years or whether the fact that Obama won't be on the ballot in 2016 sets the stage for compromises that before this moment were not possible.
"He's freed from concerns about re-election - so perhaps he'll have more flexibility in how he deals with the Republicans," said Paul Brace, the Rice University political scientist and presidential historian. "And the Republicans may be more flexible in how they deal with him."
Many suspect that Obama will try to seal his domestic legacy by trying to engineer what's known as "the Grand Bargain," a sweeping long-term deal to close America's budget gap that would include both the preferred deficit-reduction tools of Democrats - higher taxes on the rich and defense cuts - as well as tighter domestic spending and changes to Social Security and Medicare sought by the GOP.
But other domestic programs that are popular with progressives - including infrastructure spending and alternative energy, both of which should have been boosted by Superstorm Sandy's devastation, as well as the slow pace of economic recovery - are still not likely, because of the strength of the tea-party caucus in the House.
Ironically, the biggest domestic achievement of Obama's re-election may come when he takes the oath on Jan. 20 - and ensures that health-care reform cannot be repealed for the next four years. Indeed, the major expansion of insurance coverage under the law is slated for 2014, and now it will be Obama appointees ironing out those details.
Because of their lame-duck status and, quite frequently, an oppositional Congress, second-term presidents often look to foreign policy to make their mark. Clinton tried and failed to broker a Middle East peace deal at the end of his term, and there's no reason to think the 44th president has better odds.
"I think every president in the last 50 years has tried to do something with Israel," said James Hilty, Temple University history professor emeritus and expert on the presidency. He said Obama may turn to the more volatile conflict in Syria, besides managing the hoped-for end of the conflict in Afghanistan.
Hilty and the other experts say that a lot of Obama's boldest actions may come with the stroke of a pen through executive orders - along the lines of his recent move to halt the deportation of children of immigrants after Congress failed to address that issue through the stalled Dream Act.
But another area in which he may have the greatest impact received surprisingly little attention during the fall campaign: Three Supreme Court justices will turn 80 during Obama's second term. Two of them are members of the conservative bloc - Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy; the other is liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It may be that fate and Father Time determine the longest-lasting legacy of Barack Obama's eight years in office.
Contact Will Bunch at email@example.com or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch.