Three days before Christmas, President Obama gathered his economic team in the West Wing's Roosevelt Room to review themes for his State of the Union address. The edge-of-the-cliff crisis he inherited had passed, but with more than 14 million Americans still out of work, he was looking for bold ways to bring down unemployment. The ideas presented to him, though, seemed familiar and uninspired. "You know, guys," he said, according to someone in the room, "I've told you before, I want you to come to me with ideas that excite me." Nothing he was hearing excited him.

Obama's frustration could set the tone for the remainder of his term. For all the trials of war and terrorism, the economy has come to define his presidency. During the first half of his term, he used the tools of government to shape the nation's economy more aggressively than any president in 75 years. As the national debt rises and Republicans assume more power on Capitol Hill, it won't be easy finding ways to juice the economy that are exciting, effective and politically viable. Every day, in briefings, in trips around the country, in letters from the public, Obama is reminded of the many people who are still hurting. And he surely knows that if he cannot figure out in the next two years how to create jobs, he may lose his own.