THE BLOG
08/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Presidency Will Not Be Defined by Health Reform (The "Waterloo" Myth)

The New York Times blares: In Health Care Fight, Defining Moment Nears for President. It's the "Waterloo" talking point, promulgated by Republicans, seized upon by the White House, and echoed by the punditocracy and online commentariat.

It's false.

Some form of health care reform may pass -- the contours may or may not be in place by the August recess (a deadline that has become a distraction rather than an impetus). Stakeholders across the health spectrum may or may not like the final compromise. Pollsters and pundits and press may or may not express approval. But either way, this is not the defining moment or issue of Obama's presidency.

There will be many more watersheds, many unforeseen events, many highs and lows, many poll dips and spikes. In the end, Barack Obama's presidency will be defined by the extent to which he attempts to right America's (badly adrift) moral ship. Providing universal quality affordable health care is only a part of that process, albeit a significant one.

In practical terms, it starts with reorienting the administration's focus -- placing less emphasis on the political insiderism, Rahm-style deal-making, image-management and perpetual campaigning the Obama team is so adept at (and the Gang of 500 is so enamored with) and using the bully pulpit to champion bedrock principles of justice, fairness, and equality of opportunity. It's what swept Obama into the White House, the soaring ambitions, the pervasive sense that he would be the ethical antidote to Bush/Cheney, the hope that an Obama presidency would be the dawn of a new and better America. That may sound idealistic considering the inevitable transition from lofty campaign rhetoric to governing, but it has the benefit of being the right thing to do and being politically wise.

On health care, it means stating goals clearly and refusing to accept a watered-down compromise that ends up benefiting the very same interests who are gaming the system for profit today.

It means refusing to allow the obscene enrichment of bankers at the expense of everyone else.

It means ceasing, not extending and reinforcing Bush's worst excesses on secrecy and civil liberties and detainee treatment.

It means refusing to allow the continued dismissal of gay rights.

It means refusing to allow further avoidable environmental degradation.

It means seriously re-examining our Afghanistan policy.

It means seriously re-examining our drug laws and gun laws.

It means speaking out forcefully on the widespread abuse of women -- even when it seems inopportune.

And on and on.

Yes, there's the messy fact of the lobbyist-infested, special interest-manipulated sausage-making that defines Washington's policy machinery and that invariably derails the best of intentions. And there are always the political realities in the ever-accelerating news cycle, where tracking who's up and who's down is easier than asking the difficult questions. But that doesn't change the fact that Obama's presidency will ultimately be judged on his willingness and capacity to reverse the moral slippage of the Bush years. That is Obama's challenge, his Waterloo, not whether he can push through a kitchen sink of over-negotiated and under-effective policies with an eye toward the next election.

Every generation believes it is living through momentous times. We are. There's special symbolism in the fact that the nation's first African-American president follows on the heels of the nation's most radically anti-Constitutional one.

Barack Obama can reach the heights of greatness he clearly aspires to, but he must govern with the passion and principles of a one-term president, lest he become one.