If Barack Obama's presidency were to end on Day 101, it would be a smash success. He's popular, the nation's mood is lifting, he's adored abroad, and he's already put his stamp on economic policy.
Obama was primed for early success. He took office during an economic crisis attributed to his predecessor, whom the public had quit on long ago. Eloquent and possessing a genius for striking a tone of sweet reason, Obama is a walking rebuke to George W. Bush. That alone would make it hard to fumble his 100 Days.
It's the next 1,361 days that should be the worry. Obama's presidency will be defined by how he handles the stresses inherent in his ambition domestically, his humility abroad, and his polarizing approach politically.
Obama has made the financial crisis the occasion for massive spending that, if he were to do nothing else, would be a significant legacy. But if the fiscal flood isn't seriously restrained once the economy rights itself, inflation, onerous taxes or both beckon.
While exploiting the crisis atmosphere of the financial mess, Obama has floundered in addressing it directly. He's hoping to catch a virtuous cycle a recovery begins that eases the banking crisis and provides the revenue to make his program look more affordable. This dynamic would probably recharge his store of political capital for the duration of his first term.
Then there's the opposite scenario. The fragile financial system lurches downward again. It requires even more taxpayer dollars to forestall a meltdown and delays or dampens a recovery. The long-term fiscal picture looks even bleaker than we can imagine, and Obama's ambition is transformed in the public mind into rank recklessness.
Both these outcomes are possible, and not entirely in Obama's control. He's made himself a hostage to fortune by slamming through so much spending before he has any notion of how the financial crisis ends.
Of course, he also has a sweeping policy agenda on education, energy and health care. There's little sign of an imminent reform of education commensurate with the additional dollars larded onto it. Alternative energy will get more subsidies, but the cap-and-trade system to tax traditional sources of energy faces a dubious future. That leaves health care, where Obama's chances are better. If he succeeds in further nationalizing the system, he will be a consequential liberal president no matter what else happens.
Abroad, Obama has been brazenly humble. It may eventually get him something, but hasn't yet. He has two foreign-policy crises hurtling toward him in the form of Pakistan and Iran, both of which are problems from hell that won't be solved just by American humility.
Pakistan can't be sweet-talked into suddenly building strong state institutions or crushing the Taliban. Nor will Iran be persuaded to abandon its nuclear ambitions solely by blandishments. In dealing with these and other troubles yet unforeseen, Obama will need finesse, luck and mettle.
The risk Obama runs in alienating Republicans inflamed by his spending and his talk of prosecution of former Bush officials is less obvious. They are leaderless and a political rump so long as Obama keeps a strong hold on Democrats and independents. If Obama stays popular, the gap between the public's support for Obama and the right's alienation from him may only further marginalize conservatives. But Bush learned the political cost of an aroused opposition looking for every opportunity to needle and attack.
For all that he wants to use Bush as a foil, Obama shares one deep similarity with him boldness. The period of the quiescent presidency ran from 1995, when Bill Clinton was chastened by the arrival of a GOP congressional majority, to Sept. 12, 2001, when Bush abandoned his stripped-down conception of the presidency to become a wartime leader.
Fired by the belief history was on his side, Bush made a play for the ages. Obama is doing the same. That much is clear after 100 Days.