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Defining Moment

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We have just witnessed what could be a turning point in the Obama presidency. In many respects we can thank Scott Brown. For it took the humiliating loss of Ted Kennedy's senate seat, and the even deeper incipient humiliation of lost health reform, for Obama to be reborn as a fighter. It remains to be seen whether he will match the resolve that he finally summoned on health reform with comparable leadership on all of the other challenges he yet faces.

But even those of us who were lukewarm on this bill should savor the moment and honor Obama's odyssey. His Saturday speech was simply the greatest of his presidency. It reminded us of the inspirational figure in whom so many of us invested such hopes last summer and fall. If you have been on Jupiter and somehow missed the speech, you owe it to yourself to watch it.

At long last, we saw this president leading, as only a president can. And we saw him leading as a progressive Democrat, finally admitting that no common ground with today's Republicans is possible, narrating stories we all can recognize about the human tragedy that is our current health care system.

We saw him reminding Democratic congressmen and women why progress on health reform is good politics. We saw him using gentle ridicule on the Republicans, who have suddenly become oddly solicitous of the Democrats' congressional majority.

I noticed that there's been a lot of friendly advice offered all across town. (Laughter.) Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Karl Rove -- they're all warning you of the horrendous impact if you support this legislation. Now, it could be that they are suddenly having a change of heart and they are deeply concerned about their Democratic friends. (Laughter.) They are giving you the best possible advice in order to assure that Nancy Pelosi remains Speaker and Harry Reid remains Leader and that all of you keep your seats. That's a possibility. (Laughter.)

But it may also be possible that they realize after health reform passes and I sign that legislation into law, that it's going to be a little harder to mischaracterize what this effort has been all about.

We watched Obama master the mechanics of legislative politics, cobbling together a majority one vote at a time. And we observed the Republican right reduced to sputtering frustration.

What a splendid shift from the Obama who less than a month ago went imploringly to reason with the House Republican Caucus.

Until very recently, the press treated this battle as a symmetrical stand-off. Now, with the president at last regaining control of the narrative, the Republicans are revealed as pure obstructionists. As the bill takes effect and citizens actually experience benefits (and as Obama said, "Lo and behold, nobody is pulling the plug on Grandma,") the Republicans will lose both as the party of No, and as a party that tried and failed to block a beneficial reform that citizens will come to value.

It has taken more than fourteen months for Obama to vindicate as president the leadership potential that we saw on the campaign trail; fourteen months to give up on the fantasy of bipartisanship; fourteen months to start truly inspiring ordinary people as he did as a candidate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves to share this moment. She never gave up on this legislation, and she kept after Obama and his aides to be tougher, smarter, and unapologetically partisan. She as much as Obama did the hard work of pulling together a majority, and kept Obama from caving in to Rahm Emanuel's advice to seek a puny bill that the Republicans might support.

The media is notorious for exaggerating the ups and downs of a president. A few weeks ago, Obama and health reform were doomed and Obama was not up to the job. In the coming days, we will see a jubilant Obama on the cover of newsmagazines. He will be lionized as a giant-killer. His approval ratings will rise, both because more Americans are paying attention to the beneficial features of the bill as opposed to the Republican caricatures and because Americans love a winner.

Whether he continues to earn these accolades depends on what he does next, now that the long distraction of health reform is finally behind us. For this come-from behind victory is only the first step in a long road back to the presidency we thought we were getting when we voted for Barack Obama.

The financial system is setting itself up for a second collapse, as new speculative maneuvers make insiders rich and add risks to the rest of the system. The bill working its way through the Senate is far too weak to fix what is broken. We are inviting new scandals, even before we get to the bottom of what really happened at Lehman Brothers and at AIG.

Mortgage foreclosures continue to increase far faster than the Administration's feeble program of subsidizing the banks can provide relief to homeowners. Credit is still very tight because of the administration's strategy of putting Wall Street bank balance sheets ahead of recovery on Main Street.

Last week's signing ceremony in the Rose Garden for a pitifully small jobs bill was enough to wilt the roses. It was a relic of what we get when we strive for bipartisanship. With the economy short at least eleven million jobs, Obama himself has appointed a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission stacked with members who are almost certain to call for massive cuts in social investment that America needs.

And the health bill itself only begins the long task of wresting control of the health care system from callous insurance and drug companies. We still have to fight for a real public option that is the first step towards national health insurance.

But in the springtime of March 2010, we have seen a president who evidently has learned how to lead, who relishes winning, and who is primed to become a more effective progressive. For that we should be grateful. It should whet his appetite as a fighter -- and ours.

Robert Kuttner's new book is A Presidency in Peril. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos.

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