In 2008, Obama offered the promise of a post-partisan age. That glimmering vision died in the debate over health care.
All along the way, Obama encountered lock-step opposition from Republicans. The most dramatic example, perhaps, was last summer's confrontation over raising the debt ceiling, in which the country came perilously close to defaulting on its obligations. Obama thought he had reached a "grand bargain" with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to cut spending and raise revenues, but then Boehner walked away. The Republicans insist they never neared an agreement.
Some opponents have charged that Obama was advancing socialism. His government did take over much of the auto industry for a time, seeing General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcy. He did press for stronger regulation of the financial industry in the wake of the crisis that launched the Great Recession, and like most Democratic administrations his government is generally more bullish on regulation than are Republicans.
But daunted by the challenge of winning congressional approval, he sought a smaller stimulus than many thought necessary. His efforts to protect homeowners threatened with foreclosure have come up short. And surprisingly few bankers — but no high-level executives of major banks — are in jail on charges related to the financial crisis.
So he's not a socialist. In some ways, it's easiest to define Obama by what he's not.
He is clearly not a pacifist, though he was elected on a pledge to end the Iraq War, and he did.
But he also sent men to kill bin Laden. He helped engineer the international campaign that ended the life and regime of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. He decimated the leadership of al-Qaida, cutting them down from above with a drove of drones.
And he escalated the war in Afghanistan, threading the needle between generals who wanted an even larger force and his own vice president, Joe Biden, who wanted to pull troops out. In his book, "Obama's Wars," Bob Woodward describes a president who is deeply involved in planning, one who recoiled when military leaders tried to convince him that his only real option was to send 40,000 troops with an open-ended commitment.
"I'm not going to make a commitment that leaves my successor with more troops than I inherited in Afghanistan," Obama said.
In the end, he decided to send 30,000 more troops immediately, and to begin to withdraw them in July 2011.
He would later tell Woodward that he was too young to be burdened with "the baggage that arose out of the dispute of the Vietnam War" — he didn't feel any adversarial relationship with the military, or "a hawk/dove kind of thing."
Nor was he worried about defeat. "I think about it not so much in the classic, do you lose a war on my watch? Or win a war on a president's watch? I think about it more in terms of, do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end of it."
This is a man, remember, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, before he had even served a year in office. When he was informed of the award, he seemed abashed, describing himself as "surprised" and "deeply humbled."
When he accepted the prize, though, he gave an acceptance speech like no other. First, he noted the irony of accepting a peace prize even as he was commander in chief of a military waging two wars. Then, he went on to explain that, while he revered Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he could not follow their example in every way.
"I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms. ...
"And yet this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such."