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1 year in: Will fortune smile on Obama?

By Aaron Miller, Special to CNN
  • Aaron Miller: Democratic loss in Massachusetts threatens Obama's legacy
  • Obama stands in the shadows of his inspirations, Lincoln and FDR, Miller says
  • Miller: It's a stretch he can be transformative, but he's shown anything's possible
  • He writes: Mistakes common in presidents' first year; Obama must learn from them

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is at work on a new book, "Can America Have Another Great President?"

Washington, D.C. (CNN) -- Tuesday's Democratic meltdown in Massachusetts not only wreaks havoc with the president's health care legislation; it jeopardizes the legacy of a leader who barely two months ago was summoning up links to the ghosts of great presidents past.

As the calendar marks the first year of the Obama presidency, it's not too early to be thinking about his legacy. I guarantee you the president is.

Who do you suppose shapes President Obama's view of his presidency and what he hopes to accomplish? We have some clues. In his speech on Afghanistan last November, one of the most consequential in his young presidency, Obama conjured up the spirits of three of his predecessors.

The first reference to Eisenhower seemed to be a throwaway; after all, the president was speaking in the Eisenhower Hall Theater at West Point.

Does [Obama] believe that he's destiny's child? You bet he does.
--Aaron David Miller, Woodrow Wilson Center scholar

But the other two references -- to Franklin Roosevelt by name and to Abraham Lincoln by quotation -- started me thinking, and worrying, about how our president sees himself in relation to the other 42 men that have held his job. (Grover Cleveland was president twice in nonconsecutive terms).

We've had three undeniably great presidents: Washington, Lincoln and FDR, one in each century of the nation's history.

Their greatness is uncontested because they shepherded America through its three greatest crises: independence; civil war; and depression and world war. To overdramatize, but not by much: Washington created the nation; Lincoln saved it; and FDR laid the basis for modern America both at home and abroad.

All three were crisis presidents, and two were war presidents; Washington had fought his war, and the nation loved and respected him for it. All overcame the challenges they confronted and left the nation stronger for it; and all created a legacy of transformational change on some big political, constitutional or economic issue that defined their times.

Transactors and transformers alike, they changed America for the better, and forever. Remove any of the three, and the American story would have been fundamentally different and far worse. In short, their greatness lay in their indispensability.

That Obama referred to two of the three greats in such an important speech doesn't mean he sees himself in their company. The thought of this president wandering Nixon-like in the White House in the dead of the night talking to presidential portraits is a bit much. This guy is too self-aware, too smart and too cool to be thinking about himself as a Rushmore or halo president. Or is he?

Admitting yourself into the presidential hall of fame after a year in office is not the same thing as aspiring to be a great and consequential president. We can all dream, but the difference is that Obama sees that his dream may be coming true.

A year or so ago, he'd just been elected president; a year before that, he was running for it; a year before that, he was an upcoming young senator from Illinois; and before that, a state senator, community organizer and Harvard-trained lawyer.

He certainly didn't have FDR's experience or pedigree; arguably, he had more formal political experience than Lincoln, but not much. Obama's meteoric rise, almost unprecedented in modern American politics, has been self-validating for prospective greatness every step of the way.

He came from nowhere, defeated the Clintons in the primary and handily defeated a genuine war hero and veteran senator in the general election. And as the first African-American president, he can't help but see himself as a transformational figure, the modern-day incarnation of Lincoln's legacy at Gettysburg and at Appomattox.

He is in debt and in thrall to our greatest president, and he knows it. And this both inspires and obligates him to aspire.

There's more. Not only did Obama beat the odds in getting to the White House; he stepped on the stage of history at a critical moment -- the greatest economic crisis since FDR confronted the Great Depression.

Like FDR, Obama was determined not to waste a crisis. So, like Roosevelt, he juggles and experiments in a spate of government intervention and stimuli designed to restore confidence, save Wall Street from itself and to create jobs.

But unlike FDR, instead of waiting two years for a second New Deal to push for the transformative change of Social Security, this guy in his first year goes after something none of his predecessors since FDR managed to achieve: extending basic health care coverage to all Americans. But health care may prove to be a short-term curse rather than a blessing.

In reaching for greatness, he also risks controversy and failure. Potentially expensive, its benefits delayed and its passage overtly partisan, this legislation could hurt the president politically in his critically important second year, particularly when most Americans are focused on the jobless recovery.

Even before his election, Obama chose to identify himself with the greats. His run for the presidency began on the steps of the old Statehouse in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln launched his bid for Congress.

The president re-created Lincoln's inaugural journey to Washington by train and used his Bible for the ceremony.

Later, the campaign would borrow author Doris Kearns Goodwin's "team of rivals" conceit -- that Lincoln picked a Cabinet of opposing opinions -- to reinforce the Lincoln-like image. And the media was only too eager to jump in.

Time magazine would feature the president as a black FDR replete with fedora and a cigarette holder clenched between the teeth of that amazingly confident smile. And perhaps in one of the greatest stretches so far in the 21st century, a December New Yorker 2008 cover pictured Obama as the black George Washington, complete with powdered wig.

Does Obama believe he has the chance to become a great president? To all but the interminably obtuse, his record so far hardly merits that.

Does he believe that he's destiny's child? And that the goddess Fortuna has reserved a possible place for him in the company of the Greats? You bet he does.

It's still a real stretch; and his own illusions about himself as a potentially transformative figure can get him -- and the rest of us -- into heaps of trouble if he overreaches.

In this regard, he might well listen to another American president whose name he hasn't invoked: Great social innovation, Thomas Jefferson wrote, shouldn't rest on slender majorities. All first presidents, even the great ones, make mistakes in their first year -- and later too.

The question is, do they learn from them? I hope that for his sake, and particularly for ours, this president does.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.