On the eve of the inauguration, President Barack Obama's second term may also be America's second chance.
The country, in the last four years, has been battered by a paralyzing economic earthquake while trying to reconcile a debt load threatening to cripple generations of children.
It has been pulled apart by political extremism and crippled by the inability to compromise in Washington. The people have been divided -- by demographic shifts, cultural battles and clashes between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.
So, days before the president's second inaugural, the nation, too, is set to regroup. What it does differently this time around and the decisions the people make, experts say, will speak to the kind of America that emerges during the next four years.
"The enormous promise that everyone felt four years ago, it isn't completely gone but we have diminished our horizons," said Robert Schmuhl, an American studies professor at the University of Notre Dame. "We have learned that we are now living in an era of limits." Obama is perhaps more keenly aware of this than most.
Hope and hurdles
The 44th President was ushered into the Oval Office by a wave of seemingly limitless optimism and buoyed by the historic nature of his presidency as the first African American elected to the lead the free world.
But once in office, he found his efforts to right an economy hobbled by high unemployment -- 10% at its worse in 2009 -- and devastating home foreclosure rates -- one in 29 homes were in foreclosure between 2007 and 2012 -- were limited by the sheer magnitude of the problem and the political realities of a partisan Congress.
His sweeping plan to reform the nation's healthcare system further expanded political divides in Washington and helped lead to huge losses among his party's moderates in the 2010 election.
His re-election this fall --- due in no small part to demographic shifts that included large numbers of minorities and women --- was quickly followed by a protracted and deeply partisan showdown over trimming the nation's debt.
"I think Obama has learned some things," said Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. "He's going to be unlike most second term presidents in that he will be far more assertive than he was in his first term. He will be stronger on pushback against some of the most extreme elements in the Republican House. He's willing to go to battle on the whole concept of getting the economy moving."
The public saw hints of that assertiveness on Monday during a surprise news conference, where he lashed out at Republicans in Congress for playing politics with the debt ceiling.
"We are not a deadbeat nation," Obama said during a nearly hour-long briefing from the East Room of the White House. It a newly combative tone, he called it "absurd" for the federal government not to pay "bills that have already been racked up" and said he will not negotiate "with a gun at the head of the American people."
From Obamacare to the economy to Sandy Hook
Over the next four years, the country will also get a chance to see whether the Affordable Care Act -- or "Obamacare" -- is a positive or negative step for the nation. In 2014, many of the most controversial provisions, including requiring individuals to either participate in a health insurance program or pay a penalty, take effect.
"We will see whether or not we have the strength within ourselves to figure out how we should deal with entitlement programs," Schmuhl said. "In a way, it's a period when the administration will be dealing with problems that are in process."
Obama's ability -- or failure -- to navigate all of this while coming off as a strong, levelheaded leader could help set the nation's tone for years to come.
"If the economy becomes more robust you will have no doubt he will point back and say see that's what I was doing," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and CNN contributor.
Reagan, Clinton faced similar issues
It's what happened when former President Ronald Reagan, who led the nation at a time when the country was reeling from a tough economy and just starting to get over the Vietnam War. In his second term "there was a sense America was moving in the right direction in terms of how it was doing around the globe," Zelizer said.
When former President Bill Clinton took office the economy wasn't doing well, but by the second term the economy was picking up, allowing him to deliver a balanced budget and ultimate surplus by the end of his presidency.
"There was clearly a shift in the mood," Zelizer said. "In both cases, the presidents were good at claiming credit for it."
Mood matters in the age of austerity
Everyday folks have learned to cut back and suck it up---some after finding themselves underwater on mortgages they could not afford to pay; others after losing jobs that their companies could no longer afford to keep.
So, Americans have been using their credit cards less and paying down debt more -- household debt as a percentage of disposable personal income is at its lowest rate in almost 30 years, according to the Federal Reserve and credit card balances had reached their lowest level in more than a decade.