09/06/2009 01:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Obama One of Us?

If Obama does not say he's going to fight for the public option on Wednesday it will be tremendously disappointing. I'm not the first to say that (though I might be one that has said it the most often). But I do want to try to explain why so many people have that feeling.

First, we rightfully believe that the public option is the heart of health care reform. Without it, the system stays pretty much as it is with some tweaks around the edges. I have written about this many times, so I don't want to rehash that argument.

I have also said many times that this isn't just about the public option or even health care reform. This is about the central idea of Obama's campaign - are we going to have real change in this country or not? If Obama tweaks the system but leaves it largely intact, most people are under the impression that that is not the change we voted for.

Are the lobbyists still going to run DC? Are the politicians still going to work for corporate America or the highest bidder and not for their constituents? Yes, these questions are very much in play during this health care fight, but they will be present on every issue. And if Obama is planning to surrender to those interests in the name of accommodation, negotiation, compromise or just getting "something" done, then it's going to be a long four years. Then we dared to have hope in the wrong guy.

That is why everyone is so animated about the public option. It represents the larger question - is Obama really one of us or is he one of them? By us, I don't mean liberals or progressives. I mean the people interested in having their leaders represent them and not the lobbyists who gave them the biggest check. The great irony is that this could be a truly bipartisan issue.

If he is one of us, then he will not negotiate away the public option because the private health care companies hate it (i.e. they are worried it will be real competition; and if there's anything a large corporation hates, it's real competition). If he is one of them, he will give us nice words meant to appease us about how he tried to keep the public option but he just couldn't and he had to settle for a compromise like the "trigger."

If he does the latter, as he has clearly signaled so far, well then the game was over before it even started. We know that's what Rahm Emanuel wanted all along. We know the White House was busy striking deals with these companies instead of taking them on. But much more importantly, we'll know that Obama never meant to reform the system in the first place.

Look at his most important choice in the White House so far - his chief of staff. If you want to win political battles given the reality of Washington today, then you go with Rahm. If you want to change that reality instead of surrendering to it, then you definitely do not go with Rahm.

The selection of Rahm Emanuel might mean Obama never thought he could win the large battles and never intended to really try in the first place. He just wanted to win enough small political fights to be able to get re-elected. Is that the change we voted for, we fought for?

But I write all of this because it is not too late yet. Obama still has a couple of days to turn it around (if he doesn't signal a real willingness to fight for the public option in Wednesday's speech, it might just be getting too late). It will be a very hard pivot, but a strong leader could do it. If he doesn't, I don't think they understand the degree to which he will be taking the sails out of his movement. It's not to say people won't vote for him anymore. But they certainly won't fight for him. And taking the fight out of your supporters is a terrible idea in politics. And it's terrible idea if you actually want to accomplish what you said you were going to do.

This is why this issue and this question will be determinative. We'll find out what Obama is made of and what his real intentions are. We'll find out if he is one of us or one of them. I'm afraid to look.

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