On the day before the historic health care reform vote, Barack Obama made his final argument in favor of the bill to the Democratic members of Congress. "I am not bound to win," he began, quoting Abraham Lincoln, "but I am bound to be true." The next 45 minutes provided a rare, true, almost private glimpse of American politics. Some said they had never seen the President so passionate although Obama's version of passion is much calmer than most. He did many of the things expected in a pep talk. He made the substantive case for the bill. He jabbed the hyperbolic Republicans. But then, in the final 10 minutes, his tone became more intimate.
Obama spoke to the Representatives about why he and they had become politicians, and why they had become Democrats. He talked about all the town meetings and compromises, the long hours, the lumps and brickbats, the time spent away from their families. "And maybe there have been times where you asked yourself, Why did I ever get involved in politics in the first place? ... But you know what? Every once in a while, you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes you had about yourself ... And this is one of those moments. This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, Doggone it, this is exactly why I came here."
It was a perfect balm, after a season of unrelenting scorn and derision. The caucus was frightened and exhausted. The President emphasized a common humanity with his peers, normally an afterthought in the performance art of politics. He appealed to the battered sense of honor and idealism that still resided beneath their scar tissue. He was seeking not only to inspire his colleagues, but to comfort them. I don't think I've ever seen a President do that before.
The votes were undoubtedly there by the time the President spoke, but the speech solidified him in his party's esteem just as the vote would anchor him in history. Obama became a very different President in the process. After a first year in office that promised consequence but never quite delivered on it, he had done something huge. The comparisons with Jimmy Carter would abruptly come to an end. He was now a President who didn't back down, who could herd cats, who was not merely intellectual and idealistic but tough enough to force his way. This is bound to change the landscape of American politics. It makes significant progress on other issues financial reform, immigration, perhaps even the reduced use of carbon fuels more plausible. It may give Obama new stature overseas, in a world that was beginning to wonder about his ability to use power. Of course, if he doesn't carefully read the lessons of this excruciating passage, it could lead to hubris and overreach. The President's weaknesses his isolation, his tendency to mediate rather than lead are less evident in victory, but it remains to be seen if this experience has mitigated them.
"I know this is a tough vote," Obama told the House Democrats, and, for many of them, it was politically. But in another way, it wasn't: it was ground zero of what being a Democrat has meant for the past 80 years. It rectified an astonishing injustice in American life: most of the nonworking poor are guaranteed health care, through Medicaid, but the working poor are not, unless they're lucky enough to have an employer who provides it. Another injustice: insurance companies determine who receives coverage and can deny it at will. For Democrats, this represented a gaping hole in the social safety net. Arguments about the details were inevitable, but a yes vote was embedded deep in the party's DNA.