September 20, 2011 -- Barack H. Obama made history in 2008, catapulting into the White House as the first African-American president on a wave of unprecedented financial and electoral support, spurred by his message of hope and change.
Now, as Obama seeks reelection, much of that enthusiasm has waned as a sluggish economy and looming budget deficit weigh on voters' confidence in his abilities to lead.
An inherited financial crisis roiled President Obama from early in his first term, and his legacy has in large part been defined by his chosen path to recovery.
Obama helped muscle an $800 billion economic stimulus package through Congress in 2009 with little Republican support, pledging it would spark growth and lead more companies to hire. Three years later, however, the package failed to reverse high unemployment, stabilize home prices or slow the nation's blossoming debt and deficit, even if it did blunt the recession's blow.
On the campaign trail, Obama says progress takes time -- and Republican support.
He also says a new $447 billion stimulus package and separate plan to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion can do the trick, and quickly. But neither faces any chance of passage with Republicans staunchly opposed.
"We're in a battle for the hearts and minds of America," Obama said at a New York City fundraiser earlier this year.
That battle also hinges on several major domestic initiatives on which he spent considerable political capital during his first term.
Obama and Democrats' controversial overhaul of the nation's health insurance system expanded the number of Americans with coverage while eliminating unsavory elements like preexisting condition restrictions, but it has done little to slow the skyrocketing costs of care.
A sweeping financial reform law imposed new limits on banks with protections for consumers, but has drawn fire for government over-reach and added regulation that could stifle economic growth. And the government bailout of automakers GM and Chrysler kept the companies afloat and preserved thousands of much-needed manufacturing jobs, but it came at millions of dollars of taxpayer expense.
All three landmark pieces of legislation were flashpoints in the 2010 midterm election that ultimately cost Democrats control of the House of Representatives and their historic filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. And they are now lightning rods for Obama's political opponents in 2012.
On social policy, Obama has charted a course toward more inclusivity, fulfilling a promise to repeal "don't ask don't tell," prioritizing the deportation of criminal immigrants over non-criminals, and appointing two new Supreme Court justices -- both women -- including the first Latina to sit on the bench. But he has failed to achieve progress on comprehensive immigration reform.
In foreign affairs, Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize during his first year in office, recommitted the U.S. to multi-lateral alliances at the United Nations and NATO, while moving to significantly draw down the number of U.S. forces embroiled in decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama clinched victories on the world stage, too. Top among them: the killing of Osama bin Laden during a gutsy covert raid into Pakistan in April. He also brokered a new START treaty with Russia and used U.S. military intervention in Libya to help topple Moammar Gadhafi.
The president has faced his share of unexpected crises, from the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines jet in 2009 to violent mass shootings at Ft. Hood in Texas and at a Rep. Gabrielle Giffords event in Tucson. He has also weathered the destruction left by Hurricane Irene, Joplin tornadoes and a partisan debt ceiling debate.
In these situations and others, Barack Obama has undergone a coming of age as commander-in-chief just as his predecessors before. He has evolved from a young, one-term U.S. senator from Illinois to a 50 year-old leader of the free world, with the extra gray hair to prove it.
"Now I'm gray," he often tells supporters at campaign fundraisers. "I've got dings and dents too," he adds, referring to policy dust-ups with political opponents.
Four years after sharing his personal story on the national stage, Obama still talks about his roots as the foundation of his life. The son of a Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr., and white mother from Kansas, Stanley Ann Dunham, he grew up as a student of the world -- born in Hawaii, living in Indonesia, later moving to New York and Illinois.
He graduated from Columbia University, worked as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago, and later attended Harvard University Law School, where he studied civil rights and the constitution.
In 1992, he married Michelle Robinson, whom he met at Harvard, and together they had two daughters, Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, who remain central to their lives in the White House.
Obama's professorial demeanor from the presidential podium harkens back to his days as a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, before he first entered politics in 1996 to run for the Illinois state senate from the city's south side.
Eight years later, Obama burst onto the national stage with the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and soon after clinched the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois -- becoming only the third black Senator in Congress since Reconstruction.
In announcing his bid for the presidency on a cold February morning in 2007, Obama said, "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know the ways of Washington must change."
His slogan – "change we can believe in" – electrified supporters throughout 2008. Now, he makes the case for more time to bring it to fruition.
"When I said 'change we can believe in' I didn't say 'change we can believe in tomorrow.' Not change we can believe in next week," Obama told supporters at a campaign fundraiser in Chicago in August. "We knew this was going to take time because we've got this big, messy, tough democracy."