There's a question trailing President Barack Obama as he courses through the Midwest on a three-day bus tour of politics and re-election campaigning.

He says the trip is all about business for the government, but he's certainly sounding like a politician on the stump. And who can blame him?

The first-term Democrat has launched his bid for a second term as America's president in the worst of economic conditions.

Unemployment is too high. Economic growth is too low. The federal deficit is too high. Federal income is too low.

Republicans have been short on tangible solutions, but long on barbed attacks. It comes with the territory, of course.

Nobody said being President was easy, particularly when you inherit the job on the heels of an economic bubble that imploded. So it's a moot point to consider whether it's fair to have open season on Obama.

But the fact remains that the president can't seem to get away from the nagging question: What happened to Obama?

Republicans are asking the question. But what's most surprising of all is that many liberals are also asking the same question.

"President Obama has failed to articulate a coherent message for change, and has lacked the courage to use the bully pulpit to stand up to the bullies in the fight," wrote a self-professed liberal in a letter to the editor in The New York Times on Aug. 8. "I am heartsick about this failure to offer strong, firm and effective leadership, particularly at a time when our country so desperately needs it."

Americans knew times were tough and getting tougher when they ushered him into office amid great promises of hope and change.

Washington won't be the same, he said. America is at a crossroads, he said. And a few other things, he said.

Obama's eyes glistened when he campaigned the first time with such talk. When he arrived at the podium chill bumps broke out across America. Nothing will ever be the same was a prevailing sentiment.

Go for it, a majority of the people said.

Granted, Washington can harden even the dreamiest of souls -- and it's clear that's what has happened to Obama. Call it idealism trampled, or whatever you want. But watching and listening to Obama today is not the same as watching and listening to Obama was yesterday, when he was running for election.

He's not delivering the goosebumps he once was, and he's no longer talking the same message of hope and change. He's mostly talking about how Republicans are getting in the way of America's progress.

Some are, of course. But so are some Democrats. That's the way Washington works. It takes a strong president with exemplary leadership skills, able to convert vision and ideals into reality, to forge high-stakes political progress.

So beaten up is Obama that instead of talking about hopes and dreams becoming reality, he's repeating lines formerly used by Republicans.

"It's time to put the country first," said Obama this week, on his bus tour.

Republican Sen. John McCain used that line when he ran for president in 2008, against Obama.

While talking to a crowd of 500 in a town-hall-style meeting on Monday, Obama spoke in themes "intended to appeal to moderate and independent voters," wrote The New York Times. "I'm here to enlist you in a fight," he said.

The tone is starkly different than the one Obama spoke when Americans sent him to Washington. And that's what has happened to Barack Obama. That's the answer to the nagging question.

Washington has gotten the best of him, instead of the other way around.