WASHINGTON — People remember the hope and the history. For him or against him, they picture candidate Barack Obama as the one who stood on stage in a football stadium in Denver and accepted the Democratic presidential nomination by declaring "It's time for us to change America."
Forgotten, it seems, is what Obama said when he actually won.
"The road ahead will be long," he said solemnly that November night in Chicago, displaying none of the euphoria of his supporters. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."
That message amounted to a political framework for Obama's entire presidency, and for the shot he has at continuing it.
With polls showing a close contest, Obama needs voters to recall how life was back at the start, to judge what he has done as productive but unfinished, to put everything in the perspective of climbing out of the worst economic hole of their lifetimes. He always said it might take more than four years, after all.
Now he is up against both historical odds, given the nation's high unemployment, and a formidable Republican challenger in Mitt Romney.
Obama's own four-year road has been steep, from Denver in 2008 to Charlotte, N.C., where he will accept his party's renomination Thursday night. His message of hope is still tucked in there, but the pitch is a lot more hang-in-there-with-me.
The country is divided over him. The politics he promised to change remain nasty. Yet whatever one thinks of him, his presidency has been consequential.
Grappling with a monster recession at the start, Obama moved fast to get passage of a giant stimulus package with the support of his party. When the public mood later shifted to disgust over debt, he and his Democratic allies in Congress took a midterm shellacking, forcing him to adjust to the frustrating life of divided government.
His signature domestic effort, an overhaul of health coverage in America, gobbled up time and capital. He barely got it through the legislative body and watched anxiously as it sped toward review at the Supreme Court. It survived by one vote — from Chief Justice John Roberts, whose confirmation then-Sen. Obama had refused to support.
That high court, meanwhile, is beginning to bear Obama's stamp. Before his term was half over, he had won confirmation of two justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Obama ended the unpopular Iraq war, although it was on the path to an end anyway. And he is promising to close the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Even his critics applauded at least one defining moment. Obama ordered the risky raid to send special operations forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden, the most hunted terrorist in the world. The al-Qaida leader behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was shot dead.
Most of Obama's term has been scandal free, with exceptions such as Secret Service agents hiring prostitutes in Colombia.
Yet his years have been loaded with conflict and crises.
The Gulf oil spill. The military action in Libya. The auto bailout. The soaring national debt. The near government shutdown. The near government default.
He won a Nobel Peace Prize. And he felt compelled under pressure to show his long-form birth certificate to prove he was born in the United States.
Those close to Obama say he is fundamentally the same person as always. He has, though, changed in certain ways before the nation's eyes.
Given turnover in the inner circle of world leaders, Obama is now the veteran, not the new guy.
He has hit 51, lanky and in good shape and no longer smoking. But he wears the look of his job.
"I don't think there's any doubt that our presidents grow in office," says his friend and campaign adviser, Robert Gibbs. "And in some cases, they gray, too."
Obama invariably talks of decisions through the filter of fatherhood. His daughters, Malia and Sasha, have turned 14 and 11 in the White House.
Heading toward Election Day, about half the country approves of Obama's performance. That standing has been pretty steady for the past three years.
The public gives him worse grades on his handling of the economy. Yet more people than not like him personally.
Rarely part of the discussion: his race or his role as the nation's first black president.
"He has an acute sense of history. He wants to be remembered as a great president, not a civil rights icon," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. "He wants to be an equal of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. He doesn't want a special nod to history because of race."
Right now he wants four more years.
Obama has conceded he has not changed the tone in Washington. And that, at times, he has lost a connection with the American people.
"The mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right," Obama said recently. "And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."
Obama's campaign pitch this year could be ripped from the speech he gave on that Denver convention stage four years ago — essentially that government can help the middle class and support private industry and protect the hurting. He says Republicans favor an economic trickle-down approach that leaves people on their own.
Voters have two choices to make.
The first is whether to give Obama credit for economic progress. The other is whether they think he or Romney will lead the nation better going forward.
The economy weighs on Obama's chances. He is expected to face voters with the highest national unemployment rate of any president since the Great Depression. The jobless rate got as high as 10 percent in October 2009. It is now at is 8.3 percent, about where it was in his first full month in office.
The climb back remains enormous.
The nation lost 8.7 million jobs in the recession and its aftermath in 2008 and 2009. Since then, it has regained 3.9 million.
Obama once said, early in his term, that if the people were not feeling economic progress in three years, then he faced a "one-term proposition." Challenged about that this year, he said: "I deserve a second term, but we're not done."
Voters will soon decide.
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