12/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Public Option is the Yellowstone of Health Care: So Where is President Roosevelt?

On the plane to Copenhagen where he will make the case for Chicago as an Olympic city, President Obama ought to screen Ken Burns' National Parks television series. Not because it is Burn's masterpiece (it is) and tells an extraordinary story about America ambivalent relationship to nature (it does), but because it also speaks powerfully to the meaning of American democracy.

Watching the President watch the public option in his health care plan go away without a word of protest from him suggests he may be losing touch with the deep American democracy that elected him President.

The public option is the Yellowstone of health care -- a key to what the term public actually means that unlocks the secret of democracy: our capacity to think as citizens as well as consumers, to be public as well as private beings.

Without the national parks, America would not only have squandered its bounty and paved over Eden, it would have failed in its commitment to democracy. It would have permitted the mountains and rivers, the forests, lakes and plains to be expropriated, stripped, cultivated, dammed, mined, deforested, and exploited until the every idea of a national commons might have vanished. In our national parks we are reminded that we are a nation and a commonweal and that our defining equality demands that we recognize our republic as something profoundly public in nature (literally) belonging to all.

But President Obama has allowed the term "public" in "public option" to be hijacked and perverted by greedy privateers for whom democracy is a dirty word and public a synonym for bureaucracy. Watch Ken Burns and you will see that the assault on public lands and national parks used the very same libels against government and democracy being proffered today by the insurance companies. And that Teddy Roosevelt had constantly to remind the country that their land belonged to them in common and that nationalizing the precious parklands was the only way to rescue them from the clutches of the exploiters and privateers who saw in them only a reservoir of dollars.

Public Option represents the American people's common interest in equal and fair health care for all - the government's way of assuring that the "fair competition" promised by the private sector in health care will be realized.

So have a look at the Burns' film, Mr. President, and then borrow the voice of Teddy Roosevelt -"the government is us," he proclaimed, "you and we are the government," -- and give the private interests a lesson in the public good. For the right to a public health system accessible to all Americans is no less precious than the right to national parks accessible to all, and deserves a Roosevelt-size fight.

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