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We Have the Hope. Now Where's the Audacity?

Kennedy passed the liberal torch to Obama. Let's run with it.

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By Peter Dreier and Marshall Ganz
Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Aug. 25 last year, Sen. Edward Kennedy strode onto the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and announced to a roaring crowd of party faithful the beginning of a new generation in American politics.

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"I have come here tonight to stand with you, to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States," he said. Comparing Obama to his slain brother, John F. Kennedy, the senator shouted: "This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. . . . Our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on."

Eight months into the Obama administration, as we mourn the senator from Massachusetts, many of us retain the hope, but we are wondering what happened to the audacity that is needed to move the country in a new direction. In recent weeks, many progressives have expressed concern that Obama's bold plan to reform health care may be at risk. A defeat on this key issue could undermine other elements of his agenda. We don't believe that the president has changed his goals, but we wonder whether he underestimated the power necessary to bring about real change.

Throughout the campaign, Obama cautioned that enacting his ambitious plans would take a fight. In a speech in Milwaukee, he said: "I know how hard it will be to bring about change. Exxon Mobil made $11 billion this past quarter. They don't want to give up their profits easily."

He explained what it would take to overcome the power of entrenched interests in order to pass historic legislation. Change comes about, candidate Obama said, by "imagining, and then fighting for, and then working for, what did not seem possible before."

Obama observed: "That is how workers won the right to organize against violence and intimidation. That's how women won the right to vote. That's how young people traveled south to march and to sit in and to be beaten, and some went to jail and some died for freedom's cause."

But in the battle for health-care reform, the president and his allies are ignoring his own warning. The struggle for universal medical insurance -- one that Kennedy began pushing more than 40 years ago, and that looked winnable only a few months ago -- is in trouble.

For months the president insisted that any significant reform of the health-care system include a "public option" -- an expanded version of Medicare that would compete with private insurance companies, pressuring them to reduce costs and providing Americans with greater choice. Republicans have made it clear that they won't support any plan that competes with the insurance industry or challenges its runaway costs and irresponsible practices.

Obama would like, but doesn't need, Republican votes to achieve his goal. But seven conservative Democratic senators -- led by Max Baucus (Mont.) and including Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) -- oppose the public option as well. So by shilling for the insurance industry, they've made it thus far impossible for Obama to take advantage of the Democrats' majority in the Senate.

In the past few weeks, Obama has hinted that he might settle for reform without a public option, thus assuaging the Baucus caucus and the insurance industry but angering many of his progressive supporters.

At the same time, Obama's readiness to compromise hasn't mollified members of the small but vocal right-wing Republican network who, egged on by the conservative echo chamber, have disrupted town hall meetings across the country, warning of "socialized medicine" and other impending catastrophes. This has made it harder for Obama to argue for his proposals and has hurt his standing in public opinion polls.

If the unholy alliance of insurance industry muscle, conservative Democrats' obfuscation and right-wing mob tactics is able to defeat Obama's health-care proposal, it will write the conservative playbook for blocking other key components of the president's agenda -- including action on climate change, immigration reform and updates to the nation's labor laws.


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