It’s true what they say: Barack Obama does not relish the game of politics. Don’t get me wrong—as the first president in more than five decades to win more than 51 percent of the vote twice, he understands how the game is played. The man knows how to read a poll, and he is certainly not immune to the very human disappointment one must feel when the numbers show that a majority of your fellow citizens personally disapprove of you and the job that you’re doing.
But Obama did not run for elected office because he needed to be loved. He has his family and friends for that, and he lacks the insecurity that lies just beneath the healthy egos of so many politicians. This president does not crave constant affirmation, which means he does not engage easily in the backslapping and glad-handling and forced emoting that comes so naturally to other elected officials.
The flip side of this character trait is Obama is more likely than most to make decisions that reflect the courage of his convictions. Yes, the president has said and done things aimed at improving his own political fortunes, as well as the fortunes of his party. He is neither pure nor perfect, and as I said, he understands how the game is played.
But he opposed the war in Iraq at a time when most every Democrat with national ambitions lined up in support. Obama was the candidate who responded to the wildly offensive rants of his former pastor with an incredibly risky, nuanced, honest discussion about race relations in the midst of a heated campaign to become the nation’s first black president.
The politics of this issue may not improve for years. But there’s nothing we can do about any of that. What we can do is fix what needs to be fixed.
When he took office, Obama continued the Bush administration’s rescue of the financial industry, politically toxic to both his base and his opposition, because he saw no other way to prevent a complete economic meltdown. He extended federal assistance to the auto industry at a time when doing so didn’t even command a majority of support in the state of Michigan. And in the winter of 2009, he embarked upon a quest for comprehensive health-care reform that had eluded leaders of both parties for nearly a century.
The president chose to wage this battle over the frequent objections of close advisers, who warned him that the politics of health care have always been harsh and unforgiving. Some, like Rahm Emanuel, still bore the scars of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s valiant but unsuccessful effort to reform the system in the early 1990s—an effort defeated by baseless fear-mongering that any attempt to offer Americans more secure, affordable coverage would lead to a government takeover of the health care most people already had and generally liked.
The warnings of those advisers turned out to be true. On the day Scott Brown won an upset victory in the special election to fill the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy, it appeared that the chances for reform had died along with history’s most passionate health-care champion. Obama’s advisers told him that the votes in Congress were no longer there, and that unless he was willing to cut his losses and accept a drastically scaled-back version of his health-care proposal—perhaps a small expansion of coverage for children or a few watered-down consumer protections—the political fallout could cost him reelection. And what the president said next is why so many of us chose to work for him in the first place:
“What are we here for? Did we come here to just put our approval ratings up on a shelf and admire them? Or are we here to try to make a difference—to actually start solving some of the problems we’ve talked about for so long?”
Barely two months after the press wrote countless obituaries for the Affordable Care Act, Democrats in Congress showed genuine political courage by voting it into law.
Now is the time to show that courage again.
The president has taken full responsibility for an inexcusable website failure that has made him angrier than any of us can remember, and he’s doing everything within his power to fix it as quickly as possible. He has personally apologized to the small percentage of Americans who are receiving cancellation notices from insurance companies that knowingly sold them substandard coverage after the law was passed, and last week he provided those insurance companies with a little more time and leeway to help people transition to a better plan of their choice.
But the president should never apologize for passing the Affordable Care Act, and neither should those of us who have supported this kind of reform for years, even decades. We didn’t fight for this law because it was good politics. We didn’t fight for this law with the hope that it would lead to some ideological victory for big government—otherwise we wouldn’t have proposed a plan that maintained the private insurance market with reforms that Republicans once championed.
We fought for this law because no other advanced democracy on Earth gave insurance companies free rein to profit by discriminating against all but the healthiest and wealthiest citizens. We fought for this law because 14,000 Americans, most of them working and middle class, were losing their health insurance every day—with no other options. We fought for this law because millions of other Americans thought they had decent coverage until their insurance company refused to pay for treatment that someone in their family desperately needed; because people died as a direct result of not being able to afford better health care.
The reason we fought so hard for this law—the reason Obama is willing to stake his entire legacy on making it work—is because so many of us have had a personal experience with the fear and vulnerability that comes with being sick. When the president personally inserted a tribute to Ted Kennedy in the last draft of his 2009 address to Congress on health care, he explained that the late senator’s passion for reform was the result of such an experience:
“It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick; and he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent—there is something that could make you better, but I just can’t afford it.
“That large-heartedness, that concern and regard for the plight of others, is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together, that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.”
In the end, this is the fundamental principle behind health-care reform: There but for the grace of God go I. For years, the only reason insurance companies were able to offer cheap coverage to healthy people who shopped on the individual market is by denying coverage or treatment to those who became sick or struggled with a preexisting condition. Now that the insurance companies are permanently banned from such discrimination, a small minority of us healthy, middle-income Americans will find ourselves paying higher premiums or deductibles. (As a new small business owner, I am in this category.) But in return, all insured Americans will gain a new sense of security many of us didn’t even know we were missing—the security of coverage that protects us from financial ruin in the event of an illness or an accident we never saw coming.
There but for the grace of God go I.
The latest round of obituaries for the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s presidency will probably continue until the website is fixed and enrollment is up. The media, which has always had a nonpartisan bias in favor of bad news over good, will probably keep telling a disproportionate number of health care horror stories—real or not. And the politics of this issue may not improve for years.
But there’s nothing we can do about any of that. What we can do is fix what needs to be fixed and fight like hell for the millions of our fellow citizens who desperately need this law to work. No matter how politically unpopular it may be, now is the time to speak out on behalf of the 3 million young adults who are covered by their parents’ health insurance because of this law; the 8 million seniors who are saving a good chunk of their income on prescription drugs; the 100 million Americans who are receiving free, potentially life-saving preventive care like mammograms; the more than 500,000 people and counting who are signing up every day for the protection of health insurance, many for the very first time in their lives.
It is these numbers, not the ones in any poll, that will ultimately determine not only the legacy of this president but the legacy of a belief that is just as much a part of this country as our rugged individualism—a belief that we take care of each other, because we are stronger together than we are on our own.