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Obama to be spectacular success — or failure?

Conservatives and liberals alike can agree on one thing after 100 days of President Barack Obama: This guy is going to be consequential. But will he be a spectacular success or a spectacular failure?
/ Source: NBC News

The current spate of 100 days media coverage has the feel of the old adage, "Everything's been said, just not everyone has said it."

And yet, it's amazing how little attention we've given to what the Obama presidency looks like from 30,000 feet.

The lack of context these days, particularly in this current 24/7, attention deficit disorder news environment, is one of the sadder developments in Washington.

This is particularly disturbing for those who can't get enough of history, or for political junkies who organize their bookshelves by presidential terms (did I just admit that?).

But that's the thing — conservatives and liberals alike can agree on one thing after 100 days of President Barack Obama: This guy is going to be consequential.

Now, how one defines "consequential" depends on the point of view.

Nothing about the first 100 days indicates that the president wants to be judged on his incremental achievements.

And while we've probably never elected a president whose goal was to tread water and simply not screw up the country, one can sense that we're at a crossroads in the American story.

Spectacular president?
Right now, the needs of the country and the ambitions of the president are combining to create a reality that Obama will go down in history as one spectacular commander in chief.

But will he be a spectacular success or a spectacular failure?

That's what makes him so likely to be consequential.

Forget the historic nature of his election having to do with skin color — Obama has an opportunity offered to few presidents: the chance to set the course of the nation for decades, if not generations, to come.

Who knows, perhaps in the near future, our grandchildren will spend money with Obama's face on it.

Sure, I could nitpick and make the case that whenever he's been presented with a tough decision, Obama's gone out of his way to find a middle ground — even if there wasn't one.

Gitmo is perhaps the best example of this. On the surface, the president announced a dramatic initiative: shutting down the controversial detention facility.

But read the fine print and you'll see that there will still be detainees who never make it into the U.S. justice system. And others who will never return to their home countries because they can't be tried and are too dangerous to release.

What does this mean? These folks have to be housed somewhere by the U.S. government. It just won't be in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And in this same category, we don't yet know when the president will draw a line in the sand, politically.

His critics love to ask this question: When will he publicly fight his base on something of significance?

Will this define him as a consequential president, or is it more likely that he's consequential because he's using his political capital with the public to push an amibitious agenda?

Obama's domestic battle plan
Right now, it appears that he's on an ambitious agenda push, particularly on the domestic front, including his energy and health care plans.

Politically, Obama's party has been given one last chance with the public to get health care done. If voters see the Democrats fail on this front after decades of promises, it could spell major problems going forward on domestic policy.

Still, in the grand scheme of things, Obama is not being shy about going for a sweeping vision of government for the 21st century.

So what are the potential potholes for this presidency?

Well, the easy answer is the unknown. What if the swine flu becomes a pandemic? What if Pakistan becomes a failed state? What if a loose nuke goes off somewhere?

The unknown has undone many a president, and no matter the popularity of an Oval Office occupant, any and all presidents are vulnerable.

Of course, one thing that seems to set Obama part from his recent predecessors is his ability to keep an inner calm about tough issues.

He never gets too high or too low during a crisis, and that attitude is almost always rewarded.

The only time that demeanor is punished by the American public is when it comes across as aloof or out of touch.

So far, the president has struck the right balance, although the public is showing some signs of frustration with the administration's apparent coziness with Wall Street.

Another potential pothole has to do with the president himself. Much of his success so far is due to his popularity, both domestically and internationally.

In many ways, his personal connection with the American public and the world gives him his political capital. Obama's ability to use his personality to push folks, whether on Capitol Hill or in Europe, means that he has to stay popular.

What happens if he loses that popular mandate? He admitted that much of his foreign policy doctrine relies on his being as popular, if not more so, in other countries as their own leaders, affording him the opportunity to push American interests.

The power of the West Wing
Another potential pothole also is intertwined with what has been a key strength for the president — concentration of power inside the West Wing.

The expansion of unofficial policy czars with direct contact or staff in the executive branch means that the president can keep a tighter leash on key issues, like the banking crisis, autos and foreign policy. But it also means more direct responsibility when things go wrong.

Also, the concentration of West Wing power has meant that the White House, led by chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, has been going at an incredibly quick pace. Some believe it's an unsustainable speed. Others say this pace is what is required of a modern, 21st-century president in the midst of an easy distracted public and a crazy news cycle.

If you can't multitask, you'll be bogged down and risk accomplishing very little.

It's certainly an ambitious strategy, but one that has a ton of downsides. Still, no president has truly wrangled the news cycle successfully since Reagan, and there was only one cable channel in the '80s — and no Internet.

Ultimately, the public judges a first term president, not in the first 100 days, but in the last 300 (in this case, January to November 2012).

But the start of this race gives him a chance to be consequential; it's what every man and woman who ever runs for president dreams of.

That's what presidential ambition is about — not just becoming commander in chief, but becoming history.

Obama is in some rare air right now. Can he keep it up? The odds are against him, but the odds have been against this president a number of times, and he's beaten them.