With his unique multicultural background and soaring rhetoric, President Obama was seen as the perfect antidote to George W. Bush's presidency, which was perceived as having soiled America's image abroad.
Foreign crowds treated Obama like a rock star, in some cases ecstatic about his rise as the son of a Kenyan exchange student to lead the world's most powerful nation, and about the promise of a new, less combative outlook from Washington.
Some 200,000 people showed up in July 2008, before he had even taken office, to listen to his oration at the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin. Political candidates in Brazil adopted his name to capitalize on his immense popularity among voters there.
But the rock star has faded.
Around the world, Obama's presidency has damaged the image and interests of the United States among governments and populations, even those traditionally considered allies. Some of those who criticized Bush's policies now look back with relative respect to his tenure.
Obama insists his policies have made the nation safer, but even some of those who once supported him strongly disagree. Policies he touted as successes have contributed to new headaches in a world that has become more chaotic as the old international order crumbled and Washington retreated from its traditional leadership.
Amid calls for an urgent change in direction, the administration in February released a new national security strategy that was immediately slammed as passive and unfocused, relying on "strategic patience" toward an international landscape that is more chaotic than administration officials and other experts have ever seen.
"We need to bring clarity to our efforts before we lose the confidence of the American people and the support of our potential allies," wrote retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, former U.S. commander in the Middle East, in February, repeating what he had told the Senate Armed Services Committee a month earlier.
Criticism of the president's foreign policy comes, too, from the heart of the establishment, many of whose members initially backed and advised him.
"In the end, making the national security system work comes down to one factor, one man: Barack Obama. He's the key problem, and he's the only one who can bring about a solution," Council on Foreign Relations Chairman Leslie H. Gelb wrote Jan. 14 in the Daily Beast, calling for a top-to-bottom shake-up of the president's foreign policy team.
The public has taken notice, with larger percentages preferring Republicans on foreign policy over the Obama-led Democrats. A Feb. 18-22 Pew Research Center survey showed a 13-point edge for GOP over Democrats when participants were asked which party would do a better job on foreign policy. This is the most significant lead for Republicans since 2002, before the Iraq War eroded their standing on that issue.
People around the world are noticing, too. In just about every crisis zone, the administration's actions and inactions have frustrated allies and partners and hurt American interests.
Europe: 'Too little, too late'
Russia's aggression toward Ukraine has blown up the post-Cold War order on the continent and even raised the specter of nuclear confrontation.
In the year since Moscow seized Crimea, rebels backed by Moscow have seized territory in eastern Ukraine in spite of an official truce. Meanwhile, American-led sanctions have done damaged the Russian economy but done little to thwart President Vladimir Putin's belligerence.
And Ukraine isn't the only issue. The United States has accused Russia of violating a 1987 treaty barring the development, testing or fielding of intermediate-range ground-launched nuclear weapons. And NATO officials have expressed concerns about increased Russian testing of its air defenses of member nations.
Putin appears to be trying to show that the Western alliance, perhaps particularly under Obama's leadership, is a paper tiger. The Russian president "is the number one menace to global security today. And until it's understood in Berlin, in Washington, London, Paris, we're not gonna have the right policies," said John Herbst, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003-2006 and now director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.
Herbst, co-author with a bipartisan group of former officials of a report that says it's time for the United States and its NATO allies to arm Ukraine, has accused the Obama administration of dithering on the issue and has also criticized the reluctance of allies such as France and Germany to be decisive.
Obama has allowed Europeans to take the lead in deciding how to handle Russian aggression, which has left lawmakers in Congress frustrated as well.
Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House to require the administration to provide arms to Kiev.
"The administration's policy towards Ukraine is becoming its latest version of 'too little, too late,'" House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said.
The worry is that if Russian aggression is not stopped in Ukraine, Putin will threaten Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and even Poland.
"He's waited far too long," Herbst said of Obama. "Every time ... in the post-war world, even going back to 1945, when you've faced a serious security challenge in Europe, it was American leadership that was required."
The Middle East: U.S. influence plunges
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to a joint meeting of Congress last week could be a metaphor for Obama's problems in the Middle East: Here was the leader of one of the closest U.S. allies, who had become the administration's most troublesome critic, laying out a case against one of Obama's top priorities in the region before a sympathetic audience, the Congress.
Obama came to office pledging to reduce the tempo of American involvement in the Middle East, while at the same time seeking peaceful resolutions to crises that kept drawing the nation into the region's conflicts: the threat of Islamist extremism, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first two have grown to the point where they have pushed the third to the back burner. Meanwhile, Obama's cautious, even passive, handling of both Islamist extremism and Iran has spawned frustration at home and in the region, causing Washington's influence to plummet even among traditional allies.
"'We were caught by surprise' has become the chorus of U.S. officials in attempting to defend a lackluster, hands-off approach to conflicts that are ripping apart the Middle East," wrote Al-Arabiya columnist Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief for the London-based Arabic-language Al-Hayat daily.
Indeed, administration officials have said they were surprised by the rapid rise of the Islamic State and the coup in Yemen by Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, among other events.
But many of the major policy reversals in the region have been due to the action, or inaction, of Obama himself.
When he took office in 2009, Obama reversed the Bush administration's hostile course on Syria and embraced Damascus as a U.S. "partner" in seeking Israeli-Palestinian peace. Though his administration's own policy returned to a hostile course toward Syrian President Bashar Assad after violent revolts against his rule began in 2011, Obama has resisted taking any action outside diplomacy to remove Assad from office. When the Syrian government was caught using chemical weapons, violating a "red line" Obama had set in 2012, the president considered, then rejected, military action, and denied he had set a red line at all.
Now, the president's cautious military strategy against the Islamic State has put his plan for defeating the extremist group in doubt, especially in Syria. It also has fueled suspicions in Israel and among Arab allies that Obama's real agenda is to align American actions in the region with those of Iran, the embattled Assad's chief international patron.
The administration has made no effort to roll back Iran's growing influence anywhere, and it refuses to link Iran's aggressive behavior and support for terrorism to talks about limiting the mullahs' nuclear program.
"I think it is very important not to be distracted by the nature of the Iranian regime's ambitions when it comes to territory or terrorism — all issues which we share a concern with Israel about and are working consistently with Israel on. Because we know that if, in fact, they obtain a nuclear weapon, all those problems would be worse," Obama told reporters in reaction to Netanyahu's speech.
"So we're staying focused on the central issue here: How do we prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."
Though the killing of al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan in May 2011 was probably the biggest international achievement of his presidency, Obama's approach to al Qaeda and other Islamist groups in general has gone a long way toward negating the benefits of bin Laden's death. According to both intelligence officials and outside experts, 2014 is shaping up to be the worst year for terrorism on record, after a dramatic spike in attacks by mostly Islamist groups.
Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, now the CIA director, dismissed the idea of a renewed Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, as a "feckless delusion that is never going to happen" in a June 29, 2011, speech laying out the administration's policy.
But that caliphate was declared and in January 2014, after its jihadis began its surge across the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq, Obama dismissed the group as "a JV team."
The president also refuses to acknowledge that the Islamic State's ideology is rooted in Islam, with his administration preferring to use the term "violent extremism" — a refusal that puzzles leaders in the Muslim world who have no such qualms about calling the threat what it is. The White House shut out Muslim reformers from a February summit aimed at developing ways of combating the successful propaganda campaigns of the Islamic State and other extremist groups that fuel their continued growth.
Meanwhile, the Houthi coup in Yemen has forced an evacuation of American personnel from that country, disrupting one of the most important U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda, one that Obama had touted as a success.
Afghanistan and Pakistan: Looking beyond Obama
Although the administration is reconsidering its timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the very act of setting one has sparked concerns that Washington could squander its hard-won gains after 14 years of war.
"We must not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, where an early withdrawal that was based on political, rather than strategic, calculations contributed to the rise of [the Islamic State]," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. "Although the operational outlook is very different than Iraq, Afghanistan could also become unstable should the United States end the mission before the Afghan forces are capable of providing their own security."
The Obama administration's reliance on withdrawal timetables has signaled to the Taliban that the group could wait out U.S. efforts to shore up Afghanistan's government so it can handle the nation's security on its own, said Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and now a fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Obama's determination to leave on schedule also has emboldened Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence establishment, which has supported the Taliban for decades, to continue intervening in Afghan affairs, a key obstacle to the success of American goals there, he said.
The administration "won't signal that the return of the Taliban is unacceptable," Haqqani said.
As the United States is seen as shrinking from its responsibilities as a superpower, Pakistan has focused on its traditional alliance with China and drawn closer to Russia as well. In Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani is looking to Beijing to get a better deal in confronting the Taliban even as he plans a visit to Washington later this month to ask U.S. troops to stay longer.
"Most of the countries in the region are looking to the post-Obama phase," Haqqani said. "There's been a desire to hedge one's bets."
Libya and Northern Africa: Chaos spreads
Obama's decision in 2011 to use U.S. force to oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi has haunted the northern third of the continent, with Islamist extremist fighters and arms looted from Gadhafi's arsenals fueling conflicts across the region.
Libya itself is mired in civil war and has become the latest base for the Islamic State. The country's chaos has spilled over into U.S. politics through the investigation of the Sept. 11, 2012, murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi by Islamist militants.
"There is no overstating the chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya," journalist Jon Lee Anderson wrote in the Feb. 23 issue of the New Yorker. "Two competing governments claim legitimacy. Armed militias roam the streets. ... Some three thousand people have been killed by fighting in the past year, and nearly a third of the country's population has fled across the border to Tunisia. What has followed the downfall of a tyrant — a downfall encouraged by NATO air strikes — is the tyranny of a dangerous and pervasive instability."
That chaos has spread to neighboring countries such as Mali and Algeria. A study released Feb. 17 by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies found that terrorism across northern Africa in 2014 had "jumped an alarming 25 percent over 2013's previous record high" to a total of 289 incidents, representing more than an eight-fold rise in attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.
Chaos also has affected Egypt, which already was dealing with terrorist attacks in the Sinai from militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. A video released Feb. 14 showing Islamic State militants beheading 21 Egyptian Christians prompted Cairo to launch airstrikes into Libya.
"What George W. Bush did to Iraq is the same thing that President Barack Obama did to Libya. That is, he took a state that was stable, that was an ally in the war on terror, and went in with a military intervention, and destroyed the state," Alan J. Kuperman, a University of Texas scholar who recently wrote a piece on the administration's intervention in Libya for Foreign Affairs, told NBC News on Feb. 22.
East Asia: Is 'rebalance' more theoretical than actual?
The administration considers its vaunted "pivot," or "rebalance" to the region, first announced in a January 2012 military strategy, as one of its signature achievements.
"Since the first weeks of the Obama administration, Asia has figured prominently in American foreign policy. The famous rebalance has come into its own despite many other demands," Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said in a Feb. 27 speech.
"We've achieved a new normal of sustained, well-resourced, high-level engagement with the region. But it's worth remembering what the rebalance is and what it was never intended to be. It's not a move away from the Americas or from Europe, and it's not primarily a military strategy. Rather, it's simply a recognition of reality. America's security and prosperity are inextricably and increasingly linked with the Asia-Pacific."
Sherman prefaced her speech by noting that she had just spent the previous week in international talks on limiting Iran's nuclear program. And that's the problem for many of the countries in the region: The "rebalance" is more theoretical than actual.
A survey of Asian elites released in July 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that 79 percent supported the new U.S. approach, but 51 percent believed it was neither resourced nor implemented sufficiently.
"A rebalance to Asia that does not have new military and economic resources will be dismissed as public relations puffery rather than a strategy," Karl Jackson, director of the Asian studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Feb. 26.
On the military front, countries in the region are wary of a more assertive China and worry that the United States might not keep its security commitments, in spite of personal assurances by Obama and other administration officials in visits to the region.
In October, South Korea convinced Washington to keep direct control of both nations' military forces on the Korean Peninsula indefinitely out of fear of nuclear-armed North Korea's increasingly capable military and erratic behavior. The shift was supposed to have occurred this year, potentially reducing U.S. direct involvement in South Korea's defense.
Meanwhile, China is bolstering its economic ties with regional countries as talks drag on toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a high priority for Asian nations, but a difficult sell with lawmakers of both parties in Congress, who are reluctant to give the president the "fast-track" authority he would need to implement it. The deal includes 12 Pacific Rim countries, though not China.
Latin America: Obama 'never had a vision'
Problems for the United States in Latin America have stemmed mostly from the Obama administration's failure to engage actively with countries in the region. This has given the impression that Washington doesn't care.
For the most part, Obama has delegated relations with countries in the region to Vice President Joe Biden. The only significant exception is the recent effort to restore ties with Cuba, the president's first major initiative in the region in years.
The United States is paying the price for Obama's "diplomatic malpractice," said Roger Noriega, who was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Bush administration.
"They never had a vision. They never had a vision about our responsibilities in the region," said Noriega, who is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
"The president is just not a player. Cuba has more to say about what's going on in the region than the United States does."
The erosion of Washington's influence in Latin America under Obama played a role in the chill in relations with Brazil after National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden revealed in summer 2013 that the agency spied on President Dilma Rousseff and the state-controlled oil company, Petrobras. Amid the scandal, Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington scheduled for later that year.
The irony was that Obama, when first elected in 2008, had been wildly popular in Brazil to the point that political candidates adopted his name to gain advantage over their opponents. But the president never cultivated the kind of close relationship Bush had with Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, which led Brazilians to believe they were being treated with respect by the United States.
"That disappeared when Obama came in," Noriega said.