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U.S. President Barack Obama is seen at a campaign rally at the Community College of Aurora, in Aurora, Colo., on Nov. 4, 2012.Brennan Linsley/The Associated Press

Barack Obama formally became a candidate for re-election on April 4, 2011, but it was not until 364 days later that he really laid bare the guts of his campaign.

The first black president would not reprise the postpartisan, postracial themes of 2008, nor take much credit for his first-term successes. He would not repeat the vow of his first inauguration to slow the rise of the oceans nor, in fact, make any other lofty promises.

After four years of brutal partisan battles with an intransigent opposition in Congress, a greyer, sterner Mr. Obama would instead run as a Democratic bulwark against retrogressive Republicans seeking to tear up the social contract.

"It is thinly veiled social Darwinism," Mr. Obama said in April about the budget proposal adopted by the Republican-led House of Representatives. "It is prescription for decline."

A victory on Tuesday would vindicate the cool and unknowable Chicago lawyer after four tumultuous years marked by high unemployment and Republican obstructionism in Congress. It would allow him to implement most of his health-care law, ensuring a progressive legacy alongside those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

But it would also set the stage for an ultimate showdown between Mr. Obama and the House Republicans he has so villainized on the campaign trail. The outcome of that clash would determine whether Mr. Obama emerged as a more powerful President in his final term or became a lame duck from almost the moment of his second inauguration.

"I see this campaign as having, at the very least, not furthered the cause of compromise," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow .

Bowing perhaps to the reality of a divided country, this Obama campaign has been quite unlike his unifying crusade of four years ago. The soaring rhetoric has given way to workman-like speeches that evoke class and partisan divisions. Mr. Obama has depicted GOP nominee Mitt Romney as a paladin of the rich. He has made special appeals to Latinos and single women, respectively, by attacking Republican policies on immigration and reproductive rights. He has been largely silent about his second-term agenda.

Instead, the final version of Mr. Obama's stump campaign speech has gone like this: "If the price of peace in Washington is cutting deals that kick students off financial aid or get rid of funding for Planned Parenthood or letting insurance companies discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions or eliminate health care for millions of folks on Medicaid who are elderly, disabled or poor – I'm not going to make that deal."

As presidential historian Douglas Brinkley mused: "Obama has less a grand plan to get America working than a 'NO TRESPASSING' sign to prevent 100 years of progressive accomplishments from being swept away."

Some Democrats worried a negative campaign, short on policy specifics, would backfire. Yet, Mr. Obama's chosen strategy – aided by political dividends from the auto bailouts and the intervention of Mother Nature in the form of Hurricane Sandy – now looks like it could be enough to earn him another mandate on Tuesday.

The question is, how productive would a second Obama administration be?

As the first African-American to win the White House, Mr. Obama's election in 2008 was by its very nature historic. But if he came to office with unprecedented political capital and voter goodwill, it was also because the former community organizer seemed uncommonly qualified to bring people together.

The worst economic crisis since the Depression might have been cause for unity of purpose in Washington. Instead, rabid partisanship has defined the past four years.

In his first two years, Mr. Obama relied on Democratic majorities in Congress to pass an $831-billion (U.S.) stimulus bill and massive health-care legislation that marked the biggest expansion of government in four decades.

The health-care law was a historic achievement, promising to provide medical coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. But its timing was problematic.

With unemployment above 10 per cent in 2009, voters questioned Mr. Obama's priorities. And Republicans labelled the law a "government takeover" that would lead to higher taxes and health insurance premiums.

The President's inability to win the political argument stunned his admirers. Where was the masterful communicator of 2008?

Indeed, the overarching theme of Mr. Obama's first term is his failure to articulate a narrative of his presidency that would help Americans understand and accept his policy choices. He seemed incapable of pulling the American public to his side when it mattered, a task at which great presidents like Mr. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan excelled.

That grew even more apparent with the 2010 midterm elections, when Democrats suffered their worst defeat in seven decades and Republicans took over in the House.

The bitter 2011 standoff over a normally routine increase in the U.S. Treasury's borrowing limit marked the low-point of Mr. Obama's presidency. And the last minute deal cobbled together then only postponed the inevitable showdown that awaits Mr. Obama if he wins on Tuesday.

The administration and Congress must reach a long-term budget deal in December or risk seeing the U.S. economy fall off the so-called fiscal cliff. A stop-gap solution similar to the one reached during the 2011 debt-ceiling impasse would rattle financial markets, with unknown but surely negative economic consequences.

Mr. Obama insists on tax increases on the wealthy, while showing little willingness to undertake a major reform of Medicare and other budget-busting entitlement programs. House Republicans refuse to entertain tax hikes and want massive spending cuts everywhere except in defence.

"It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant opposition," journalist Bob Woodward writes in his recent book on the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations. "But presidents work their will – or should work their will – on the important matters of national business. … Obama has not."

If voters give Mr. Obama a second mandate, he will get one more try.