President Obama retreated briefly to the serenity of Camp David this weekend, leaving behind seven days that showcased both the promise and the limits of his presidency.
The respite lasted fewer than 24 hours, and his return to the White House was marked by a victory for the ambitious agenda he has embraced. His allies in Congress had secured -- if only by a hair -- a historic milestone on the march toward comprehensive health-care reform.
"Moments like this are why they sent us here," Obama said, back in the Rose Garden Sunday afternoon. "To finally meet the challenges that Washington has put off for decades."
A year after his election, the health-care vote in the House was a reminder of the power that he still wields to shape the country's future, cajoling change that he promised as a candidate over the objections of a nearly unified GOP and a sharply divided party of his own.
But the victory came on the heels of sobering evidence that even a president as popular as he remains is subject to the shifting public mood, an economy struggling to recover and events that are beyond his direct control.
Obama clearly recognizes the constraints on his actions -- the narrow range of choices in Afghanistan, the shrunken group of political moderates that might have accelerated his agenda, the decades of policy prescriptions that would take years to unravel.
The president has hardly shied away from confronting those challenges. But the almost naively hopeful "Yes, we can!" spirit of his campaign is harder to see with the more realistic Barack Obama in the White House.
"Given the heated and often misleading rhetoric surrounding this legislation, I know that this was a courageous vote for many members of Congress," Obama said Sunday, a nod to the 39 Democrats who voted against him. "Now it falls on the United States Senate to take the baton and bring this effort to the finish line."
If he needed any reminder of how difficult that remains, the week began with a blunt message for his party from voters, who resoundingly rejected two Democratic candidates for governor and sent a shock through members of Congress who are up for reelection next year.
Senior Obama aides sought to minimize the power of that message but were largely out-shouted by a chorus of pundits and even some Democrats on Capitol Hill who warned that the results do not portend good things for Obama and his party next year.
The problem, noted Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W. Va.), an Obama ally, is people's sense that the president's agenda is not connecting with people's "anxiety" about the economy.
That anxiety was not eased on Friday, with news that the unemployment rate had increased to 10.2 percent last month, the highest rate since the early 1980s. That had been forecast by Obama's advisers but was a reminder of how far off they were in their early predictions about the impact of the stimulus bill passed earlier this year.
Republicans pounced. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele declared that "it is time the Obama administration stop spreading their phony 'saved or created' talking points and start creating the dependable jobs America needs."
Obama responded by pointing to the beginnings of growth in the economy and slowing job loss as evidence of success. But he acknowledged that full recovery, especially in the labor market, will continue to be a slog.
His comments came even as the president was forced into another grim role: being the country's mourner in chief. After the massacre at Fort Hood, Obama ordered the government's flags to fly at half-staff until Veterans Day and announced that he will travel to a memorial service on Tuesday.
As commander in chief, Obama and his administration are already being pressed to explain the breach in security on military bases; the all-too-evident strain on the men and women serving in the military; and the now-emerging clues that might have been missed about the mental state of the shooting suspect, Nidal M. Hasan.
And the incident -- clearly out of Obama's control -- comes as the president appears nearing a decision to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Explaining that decision to the public will be a critical job for Obama during the next several months, and Hasan's actions can only make that more difficult.
"Our thoughts are with all the families who've lost a loved one in this national tragedy," Obama said in his weekly radio address. "And our thoughts are with all the Americans who wear -- or who've worn -- the proud uniform of the United States of America, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and coast guardsmen, and the military families who love and support them."
On Thursday, the president leaves for a week-long trip to Asia, delayed by a day because of the Fort Hood tragedy. His attention will shift for a time to the global stage.
But when he returns, Obama will once again be faced with the difficulty of making good on his campaign promises in an environment that is far more complex than many of his supporters and adversaries acknowledge.
In his remarks after stepping off the helicopter from Camp David, Obama made clear that he remains hopeful.
"The day that we gather here at the White House and I sign comprehensive health-insurance reform legislation into law," he said, "[senators will] be able to join their House colleagues and say that this was their finest moment in public service."