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.