11/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Handoff

It is an obvious point that the most moving part of the President's speech was the part about Ted Kennedy's letter. With Teddy's death so recent, and his family there to hear the historic speech, it was truly a special moment. And reading the full text of Kennedy's letter to the President this morning turned me into a weeping basket case. But the importance of the letter, and the point President Obama made about it in his speech, goes far beyond sentimentality. The letter was a handoff, and in his speech Obama seemed to accept the baton.

The handoff I am referring to is not mainly a generational handoff, as the youngest of his legendary Kennedy generation passing the baton to another inspiring young President. Much more than that, it was a philosophical handoff rich in history and in symbolism, not only on health care but on the broader progressive mission.

Kennedy was writing about health care, but also about more fundamental principles of the progressive philosophy:

There will be struggles -- there always have been -- and they are already underway again... But you have also reminded all of us that it concerns more than material things; that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.

He closed by referencing his incredibly powerful and important 1980 convention speech, where he recounted the suffering of the poor and working class people he had met on the campaign trail, and told them that their dream for a better life would never die. Kennedy ended his letter saying:

At the Denver Convention where you were nominated, I said the dream lives on.

And I finished this letter with unshakable faith that the dream will be fulfilled for this generation, and preserved and enlarged for generations to come.

To my great delight, Obama did not just stop with stirring the emotions with the quote from Teddy. He signaled a willingness to actually take the baton from him, and keep running in the same lane. Listen to Obama"s response, where he lays out a much broader philosophical argument about the nature of a progressive vision for America:

On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick; and he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent -- there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.

That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

This has always been the history of our progress. In 1933, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism. But the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter - that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

What was true then remains true today.

The philosophical argument that Kennedy and Obama are making is the same one that I made in my book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be: that generation after generation of progressives have been motivated by the idea of America as a community, as a family that cares about each other and stands with each other in times of trouble. That "large-heartedness" really is an essential part of the American character, and of our history- "Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand." That is American progressivism. Similar words, the same ideas have animated Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Teddy's older brothers. "This has always been the history of our progress" -- and it always will be.

President Obama accepted the baton rhetorically from Ted Kennedy last night. Let us hope that he keeps to those values and ideas his entire Presidency. Now is the time for him (and for all of us) to fight with all of our hearts to make Teddy's dream real. The progressive community needs to know that, like Ted Kennedy, we can trust the President to really fight for us, because unlike with Teddy, we didn't have four and a half decades of proof that you would. But if you truly fight for us, Mr. President, we will join the cause -- the cause you embraced last night, the cause Teddy Kennedy fought for his entire life, the cause for which our progressive ancestors fought and sometimes died.

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