03.21.10

Overcoming the Fear Factor

Yes, health-care reform is a key win on the merits. But it also shows Obama prevailing over GOP fear-mongering—and generating momentum for the challenges ahead.

This is a genuinely historic moment, even if the word "historic" is abused by politicians and pundits alike. It is important for the substance of the legislation. And it is even more important for the politics.

Had the GOP been able to stop the health-care bill, it would have effectively neutered the Obama presidency after little more than a year, ending the political revolution that began with Barack Obama's remarkable grassroots campaign. The legislation passed by the House, even in stripped-down form, revives the momentum that the president desperately needs to take on the huge challenges that remain, including the Middle East, China and jobs, jobs, jobs.

By attacking fear, and reasserting that the purpose of government is to govern, the president has taken a big step toward the mantle of FDR and LBJ.

A lot of the opposition was generated—skillfully—by Republicans preying on our fear of the unknown. By presenting us with a workable plan, the president will be able to puncture that fear. In the grand scheme, this bill is not as significant as the epochal legislation of the 1930s and 1960s. But by attacking fear, and reasserting that the purpose of government is to govern, the president has taken a big step toward the mantle of FDR and LBJ.

More historians on Obama’s legacy nowThe moment is also reminiscent of the 1993 budget act that barely squeaked through Congress, over unanimous GOP opposition. That bill—and the prosperity it unleashed—set an important precedent. It showed a young president willing to use the full powers of his office to force change on an unwilling opposition. It revealed a willingness to negotiate on the particulars to get something through. And it initiated a neverending flurry of small-bore initiatives that cumulated in quite a lot of progress in the 1990s. Instead of an end—which is what failure would have been—today's vote signals a very important beginning.

Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter and senior adviser to President Clinton.