As Jakarta talk shows were still buzzing with analysis and speculation over the third delay of the state visit of US President Barack Obama, our attention was riveted this morning to events which were transpiring at that very moment, Sunday evening local time, in Washington, DC.
Not everyone here is aware that millions of Americans had been forced to go without affordable healthcare, contrary to popular notions of the United States as a just and prosperous society.
Much thought and effort has been spent on the issue ever since health reform became a coordinated movement in the 1912 campaign of candidate Theodore Roosevelt, but the ideological chasm between liberals and conservatives has made political consensus impossible.
The idea of social justice is juxtaposed with issues of rights and responsibilities and the sustainability of public financial commitment. Instead of finding policies combining the best of the left and the right, the nation has been in a constant swing between policies represented by the ideological wings of the Democratic and Republican parties.
In the dreams that Barack Obama nurtured since his childhood in Jakarta, he had a vision of an America which could unite behind causes common to the needs of ordinary people. The years in Indonesia gave him direct exposure to issues in real life which are so urgent as to seem incapable of being resolved in the political process.
In his book Dreams from my Father Obama speculated that he was sent home to the United States when he was 10 years old to prevent his idealism from being sullied by the necessity of compromising for the sake of survival.
Young Barry, as he was called then, suspected this was the issue in the arguments he had begun to hear between his mother Stanley Ann Dunham and her second husband Lolo Soetoro. As Soetoro enjoyed the rising fortunes of Soeharto’s New Order, their lives became more comfortable. But Ann Dunham Soetoro preferred the forced ascetism Lolo had been proud to wear as a badge of his identity when they first met in Honolulu.
Obama’s brilliant mind took him to Columbia and to Harvard Law School but his social sensitivities took him to the streets of Chicago where he worked as a volunteer with considerable success among low-income people. Concurrently, he developed his personal charisma into political capital and when he made his brilliant national debut at the 2004 Democratic Convention his fate was sealed.
Not only would he continue his commitment to politics but he would build a political career based on intense engagement with sectors of society grappling with unaffordable social benefits.
The Clintons’ and the Kennedys’ passion for healthcare became a logical platform that he used to enter presidential politics in February 2007. The fact that it was Hillary Clinton’s campaign banner was offset by the endorsement by Senator Edward M Kennedy, who is recognized as the patriarch of healthcare reform. The overlap became more a strength than a hindrance when Obama decided to recruit her as a key member of his Cabinet.
The Obama campaign was an exciting one because of the sharp choice offered between the rival candidates. When the Democratic ticket won decisively, it was thought that President Obama could rally the country behind him on a spectrum of issues ranging from security to Iraq-Afghanistan, to economic crisis management, to healthcare reform.
This was not to be the case, as we have seen in the troubled first year of the Obama presidency. Obama has forged ahead but it has been sluggish at best. With the vote in Congress on March 21, it will be possible for every American to finally be guaranteed high-quality and affordable healthcare.
Every American will be covered under the toughest patient protection in history. Arbitrary premium hikes, insurance cancellations, and discrimination against pre-existing conditions will now be gone forever. And as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quipped: “Being a woman will no longer be seen as a pre-existing condition”. The cost of care will be reduced, eliminating more than a trillion dollars of debt for future generations.
But there is every reason to be cautious. True, every American can expect to be exempt from personal disaster caused by injury or illness. There is real change. But the political cost will have to be measured rigorously. This is a bill that is not only monumental in the magnitude of its scope but in the political craftsmanship that had to be employed to ensure its passage.
In one way the bill has denied Obama’s big dream of building a new nation of unity stretching over the full range of America’s geography, social classes and political parties. The bill passed by a slim margin of 219-212 with none of the votes crossing party lines. Even within the Democratic Party there will have to be political accounting for the last minutes of persuasion to get the necessary majority.
The closer America came to change, the deeper the divisions showed. But in the end President Barrack Obama can claim the maturity and effectiveness that have been his strong promise.
He demonstrated the steeliness to risk political survival in transforming his convictions into the law of the land. In that respect, we stand to learn a very important lesson.
When you are sure of your convictions, let the hundreds of legislators follow a strong leader. Do not worry about postponing your important state visit and personal reunion with Indonesia.
When you have part of our nation in you, we will make sure it stays there as long as you can lead your countrymen, as we bring our people to a formidable alliance of change.
The writer is a public relations consultant with InterMatrix Communications and the host of WIMAR Live, a public affairs talk show on MetroTV.