“Presidents are remembered for the big things. FDR did Social Security. Truman created the CIA. There’s Eisenhower and the highway system. Kennedy and the moon,” Brinkley added. “So, it’s going to be Obama and what? Obamacare, that’s the big one, and killing Bin Laden. There’s room for one more big item. What will it be? Immigration? Climate change? It won’t be deficits or the fiscal cliff.”…

“The question is whether he’s willing to use the leverage he has to get a better deal. He has a chance to make history here,” said Jared Bernstein, a former adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, reflecting the mixed emotions of many nervous progressives watching the cliff talks from the sidelines. “Standing up to them would not only be a gift to the country, but a big part of his legacy.”

One staffer for a senior Senate Democrat, summing up the view of several other aides interviewed by POLITICO, called the potential deal a “cave,” and warned that Obama’s Monday afternoon campaign-style event ahead of the final deal was a “Leon Lett moment” — a reference to the Dallas Cowboys lineman who fumbled the ball while celebrating a touchdown short of the goal line.

But Obama and his staff believe Americans would have blamed him for taking the country over the cliff, and they emphasize his refusal to negotiate over the looming debt ceiling in a couple of months.