Alter: Obama's 'Persistent Progressivism'

Last week brought a lot of talk about how health-care reform (HCR) was the most sweeping piece of domestic legislation since 1965. That's astonishing when you think about it—nearly half a century with no major bills (welfare reform in 1996 and No Child Left Behind in 2002 weren't nearly as big). Considering that Congress no longer decides if the nation goes to war, this is not much of a record for the world's leading democracy.

Now the same House Democrats who groused about the bill in mid-March are giddy over their role in shaping history. After jumping off a high, scary cliff, they expected to hit rocks, and instead found themselves bathed in warm water, ready to jump again. Achieving, it turned out, felt better than posturing. The question is whether the success of President Obama's emerging governing philosophy—what might be called persistent progressivism—can be extended to realms beyond health care.

Exercising power is like exercising your body—it gets easier as you get in shape. Before HCR, members of Congress were couch potatoes when it came to legislating. Most bills were the product of precut deals by the leadership; they existed to expand or re slice existing services and programs, to work as party-identity badges, or to make the other side look bad in campaigns. This last trick is still common. Witness Sen. Tom Coburn's effort to get Democratic senators trying to complete work on reconciliation to vote against preventing rapists and child molesters from getting government-funded erectile-dysfunction medications in the new health-care ex-changes. You can see the TV ad now: Viagra meets Willie Horton.

Coburn's amendment failed badly, which lends it significance beyond the snickering. Seriousness may be making a comeback in Washington. Goofy stunts in Congress are still a daily occurrence, and the ethically challenged congressman will always be with us. But if Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid can continue to get Democrats to focus on real challenges instead of gesture politics, this could be 1965 all over again. Lyndon Johnson's domestic achievements that year have been overshadowed by Vietnam and slimed by the right. Besides Medicare and civil rights, he pushed through immigration reform and the first federal aid for education. Obama now has a chance for major achievements in those very areas.

It helps that fulfilling a progressive agenda is good politically. Banks remain loathed, which means that financial regulation, including a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, should be within reach if Obama can elevate his game on framing issues persuasively—and win over a couple of GOP senators, which is doable. Energy is just a few tweaks away from being a political winner. Changing cap-and-trade to the far more sensible cap-and-rebate (in which polluters' fees go straight back to the public as checks) could make it very popular—and confirm the role of clean energy in rebuilding the economy.

It's important for Democrats to get serious, not just about the right policy prescriptions but about girding themselves for battle against a formidable, disciplined adversary. At a book party last week for Supreme Power, Jeff Shesol's reinterpretation of Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to reorganize the Supreme Court, Bill Clinton made an appearance. In the basement of the newly renovated townhouse on East 65th Street in Manhattan that Sara Roosevelt bought for her son, Franklin, and his new wife, Eleanor, a century ago, Clinton previewed what could be a coming clash between Obama and the high court. He explained that the legal argument conservatives are preparing to make to strike down HCR is that the Constitution doesn't allow for an individual to be forced to buy a product (health insurance) from a private company. To make that argument, it was Clinton's opinion that the right first had to kill the public option. Confronting the Supreme Court publicly, he added, was a smart thing for Obama to do—just as it was for Roosevelt.

With health care, Obama has completed the unfinished agenda of Roosevelt, Johnson, and Clinton. But as Roosevelt learned when the court struck down big chunks of the New Deal, signing legislation is often just the beginning of the fight. While he lost the battle over his court-packing scheme, he won the war over the constitutionality of his program. So just as Congress has to prove it's serious, so does the executive branch. If health-care reform is implemented poorly in the next five years, Obama's victory will be Pyrrhic. Governing is a muscle, too, that requires flexing for peak performance.

Jonathan Alter is the author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.