Obama and Democrats gamble on health care.

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March 21 2010 11:55 PM

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Obama and Democrats gamble on health care.

President Obama has just completed the most arduous act of community organizing of his career. Two hundred and nineteen of his neighbors down the street joined together in the House of Representatives to pass historic health care legislation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it happen, but Obama worked harder and more intensely than he has on any other issue of his presidency. He made 92 direct pitches to Democratic members of the House, according to a White House tally. Last week he gave three speeches, culminating in an appeal to fellow Democrats more personal and philosophical than any he's given since taking office.

This week the legislation goes to the Senate, where it will be difficult for Republicans to derail the bill (though they might be able to delay it).

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

"We rose above the weight of our politics. ... We are still a people capable of doing big things," said the president. "I know this wasn't an easy vote for a lot of people but it was the right vote."

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No matter what happens next, Obama's sucessful effort to reshape the country's social safety net is a turning point in his presidency. This is his project. Unlike the bailout of the auto companies or the stimulus package, health care reform was not a response to an emergency. Whether the Obama presidency is a diptych, triptych, or something even more complex, the first hinge will mark the time before health care and the time after health care.

Obama didn't just work harder to clear this hurdle. He worked deeper, making his final pitch to provide insurance to 32 million people on moral grounds in a more focused way than he has in the last year of debate. Twice this past week he went to the presidential library for moral ballast. On Friday he quoted Teddy Roosevelt: "Aggressively fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords." On Saturday he built his speech to House Democrats around a quote from Lincoln that touched on the same sentiment—doing the right thing despite the odds."I am not bound to win, but I'm bound to be true. I'm not bound to succeed, but I'm bound to live up to what light I have."

Presidents like to compare themselves to their successful predecessors. It adds to the nobility of their cause and allows them to bask in their reflected glory. But it was clear that when Obama spoke to House Democrats, he was not just reaching for rhetorical tricks. He spoke in personal terms and at length about their collective moral obligation.

He talked about the impulse that moved them all to get into politics and that made them become Democrats. "Something inspired you to get involved, and something inspired you to be a Democrat instead of running as a Republican," he said. "Because somewhere deep in your heart you said to yourself, 'I believe in an America in which we don't just look out for ourselves, that we don't just tell people you're on your own.' "

The push to pass this bill has not only pushed him to use all of the tools of his office—speeches to the public, town halls with members of Congress, addresses to joint sessions of Congress, Q&A sessions shown over the Internet, Air Force One trips for undecided lawmakers, hours of one-on-one cajoling—but it has also pushed him rhetorically. It's one thing to say Republicans aren't participating in the health care process. The argument Obama made Saturday went further. As Obama framed it, only Democrats care about those less fortunate.

The president continued his personal pitch, empathizing with lawmakers who had sacrificed so much for their office but often felt empty for the sacrifice. Tallying up all the promises lawmakers have made during their careers, Obama offered this one redeeming act to counter the feelings of emptiness: "Every single one of you have made that promise not just to your constituents but to yourself.  And this is the time to make true on that promise."

The speech contained an important link all great presidents know how to make. It tied the case for fundamental change to enduring truths.

This kind of language is to be expected at the end of a tough effort to convince lawmakers, especially after so many arguments have already been made. It also spoke to the enormous risks. (There would have been no need for a St. Crispen's Day speech if the French were the ones with the shabby, small army.) By asking his fellow Democrats to do something hard, Obama was really asking some of them to lose their jobs. He said he thought voting for the bill would turn out to be a political benefit for Democrats. He has to say that, but he's got to know it's a stretch. 

Health care legislation as the public understands it is unpopular. Voters do not view Obama's handling of the health care issue favorably. His overall disapproval rating is higher than his approval rating for the first time in his presidency. It will be difficult to change this dynamic before November, especially since Obama's powers of persuasion over the last year have been ineffective in changing public opinion on several issues.

Given that grim landscape, Obama and congressional Democrats are making the purest test of whether voters want what they say they do—politicians who follow their conviction no matter what the consequences. That was a key promise of Obama's campaign, though so too was a new era of bipartisanship that is nowhere in evidence.

Obama will have to finesse that as he takes to the campaign trail to campaign for all those undecided lawmakers he talked to this week. One strong point in his favor is now that health care has passed, he will be able to campaign in his strongest moral voice should he choose to—the voice that worked so well for him in 2008. One of the disasters of a loss on health care would have been that it would have relegated him to complaining about Republicans. That's not his best channel. He's much better—and voters like it much more—when he speaks of hope and uplift.

When the Democrats hit 216 votes in the House, they chanted, "Yes we can!," Obama's campaign slogan. Now Democrats and the White House have to hope that, having shown they can do something, the country will change its mind and decide that Congress should do it.

AP Video: The House vote to pass health care reform.

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