Since he first ran for president, Barack Obama has often been defined by what others projected on him: Some conservatives saw a socialist, hopeful Democrats a liberal, and others a perplexing, hard-to-define centrist. With his re-election bid approaching, Obama has become more active in defining himself, increasingly as a steely pragmatist willing to break the hearts of liberals in pursuit of larger aims.

After his November "shellacking," Obama embraced new policy proposals aimed at helping corporations, reconfigured the West Wing to include former power-banker Bill Daley as chief of staff, and shifted focus to the budget, economy and job creation.

The December tax deal Obama brokered with Republicans was the start of a fusillade the White House hopes will continue to 2012.

"I would call him more of a pragmatic progressive," said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist. "What he is looking for in doing this, even if it angers liberal elements in the party, is trying to address what happened in the 2010 elections, when the bottom fell out among independents."

While his new direction reflects the top concerns of most Americans, particularly as it relates to jobs, the president's interest in using government tax breaks and similar means to spur job creation savors more of George W. Bush, friend of Wall Street, than Obama, community organizer.

Relying "on the private sector and stimulating it in the hopes that benefits will trickle down to reduce unemployment has not worked now for years," said Richard Wolff, author of "Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It."

Wolff noted that in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt embarked on a federal hiring program to ease unemployment. Obama, by contrast, has frozen federal workers' pay and is embarking on a massive government reorganization that could cost more jobs as a result of streamlining.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization that has been critical of Obama's tax policies and other stances, said voters want Obama to hold big corporations accountable.

"On pretty much every economic issue of the day -- such as ending tax cuts for millionaires, cracking down on Wall Street and oil companies, cutting wasteful military spending, creating an affordable public [health care] option, and protecting Social Security and Medicare -- the 'center' of the country is overwhelmingly on the side that progressives are advocating," Green said.

Senior adviser David Axelrod insisted to bloggers in a roundtable that Obama's views haven't shifted.

"I give you, as God is my witness, my word that we have not had a repositioning discussion here," Axelrod said, according to a transcript posted by the Nation. "We have not talked about let's move three degrees to the right."

In order to succeed, Obama needs to win back the independent voters who helped propel him into office in 2008 but have since left him in large part over his economic policies and inability to reverse the country's persistent high unemployment.

"While he hasn't abandoned progressives, he's worked to embrace those from the reasonable right," said David Badash, a New York-based civil rights activist. "Going into 2012, rational Americans will all be focused on the same issue: jobs."