Obama's legacy hangs on economy

President Obama has a problem. When it was announced last week that the nation's economy had actually shrunk in the fourth quarter of 2012 (GDP decreased by 0.1 percent), it undermined the essence of the president's long-standing economic message, which, broadly, has gone as follows: After inheriting a catastrophic situation, I have begun to right the ship. The recovery has not been spectacular, and what progress has been made has been hard-won, but it has nonetheless been consistent.

Critics of the president's economic performance (in whose ranks we are often counted), can occasionally be overblown in their judgments. We'll concede, for instance, that Obama did inherit a miserable economic landscape upon assuming office, even if the excuse since has become shopworn. That factor, however, should not add a handicap to his score. A president who goes out of his way to cultivate comparisons to predecessors like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt can't plausibly blame his failures on being overmatched by circumstances. In fact, we lay much of the blame precisely on the towering ambition that causes Obama to seek such historical parallels. If there has been one consistent theme of this administration, it has been its desire to reshape American institutions along progressive lines.

Obama, of course, is entitled to pursue this vision for the nation. As he is fond of reminding us, he won -- and that has consequences. Despite the fact that the issue is currently at the forefront of the American mind, for example, the president only dedicated a single line of his inaugural address to the topic. That line: "economic recovery has begun." That kind of rhetorical whispering isn't going to cut it anymore.

No president who fails to address the consuming issue of his era can plausibly aspire to historical greatness. For that reason, Obama's legacy hangs very much in the balance.