We are so accustomed to the rancor of the moment that it is easy to forget that a mere 14 months ago the president of the United States was an easily manipulated underachiever who governed by fear mongering, justified using Nazi-like torture techniques on his own citizens, turned a blind eye to a crippling natural disaster, led the nation into a deep recession and fought the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time with the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
It is much too early to declare Barack Obama a great president with the historic passage of health care reform, which along with the Civil Rights Act and Great Society legislation are the landmark federal initiatives of my lifetime. Too much can happen, ranging from catastrophe to scandal, with nearly three years to run on his first term, let alone a second term if he earns one.
But it is not too early to declare that Obama has the potential to be one of the greatest presidents. This is not because he re-energized the largely moribund coalition of labor unions and interest groups that helped elect him for a final health-care reform push or his dogged determination to bring together the disparate elements of the Democratic congressional caucuses, to whom he spoke no fewer than 92 times during the most bruising legislative battle in memory. No, it is because he once again reminded us that he is all about governance, a concept that his predecessor and evil vice president had all but eviscerated.
And that in his darkest hour -- in the wake of electoral loses in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts and plummeting poll numbers -- Obama not only refused to be fatalistic but set aside the talking points that he had patiently and repeatedly enunciated and spoke of the moral imperative of Congress to pass health-care reform.
By moral imperative I mean his fellow Democrats, enough of whom were willing to do the right thing even if it meant losing.
As the Democrats finally erase the stigma of the U.S. being the only developed nation without a comprehensive health-care system, the Republican Party now stands foursquare on the wrong side of history. Not because there were honest policy differences. The GOP never made an effort to answer the call of history by proposing an alternative to ObamaCare, merely demanding that it be scrapped in the 11th hour.
In the service of their single-minded quest to destroy the Obama presidency and obeisance to the Beck-Limbaugh echo chamber, Republicans were utterly indifferent to the welfare of people without health insurance. They speciously claimed that reform would hurt elderly Americans by damaging Medicare, a program that they had consistently opposed, and that the Democrats employed unfair parliamentary tactics that they had used repeatedly during the Bush era.
Yes, the Republicans will win more seats in November as the minority party typically does in off-year elections and perhaps win a few more because of reform. But the long-term political cost of opposing what essentially is the will of the people will be dear and reverberate long after the cries of "Baby killer!" and "You lie!" fade from memory.
This is not the beginning of the end of America, as garment rending Republicans claim, but the beginning of an era when Americans again have someone in the Oval Office who refuses to condescend. Who frames health-care reform as "not just our ability to solve this one problem, but our ability to solve any problem." Who is willing to spend political capital to solve problems. Who refuses to govern by the polls. Who is determined to be a transformational figure. That is a recipe for presidential greatness.