Every few decades, America takes a momentous turn in reaffirming what it stands for and how it treats its citizens. This happened with the enactment of Social Security in the 1930s and with Medicare and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. At 11:57 am EDT today, history will record that another milestone was reached with the signing into law of the Affordable Health Care for America Act by President Barack Obama.
As they rallied to support those landmark moments in the past, each generation of leaders and legislators faced doubts and objections. But they overcame them because they believed they were engaged in an historic act of faith that would make the world better for their children and grandchildren. Those who stood in their places over the past months in the White House and in the Democratic aisles of Congress were driven by a similar sense of mission and faith. This was their contribution to creating a more perfect union, where the first word in that magisterial phrase from the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” now takes on new hope for millions. For many legislators, this law will be the hallmark of their careers; everything else will be epilogue. It is this day they will long remember and frequently recount to their children and grandchildren, as King Harry’s bruised but happy band did on each St. Crispin’s day.
Making health care affordable and accessible for all Americans is likely the most costly enterprise ever embarked upon in the nation’s history — except for the costliness of doing nothing. It would likely have needed Democratic control of both Houses of Congress, and the White House, for such a plan to have become law, as with previous groundbreaking social legislation under FDR and Lyndon Johnson. That alignment of political planets does not happen often in America and it may not again for some time, given an increasingly acerbic public mood. Mr. Obama and his party’s leadership in Congress rightly seized upon a perhaps short-lived window of opportunity, which may in some ways account for an occasionally clumsy process and content in the bill that was not exactly exemplary. But these imperfections, and those that may arise in the future, should not detract meaningfully from the importance of what has eluded so many presidents and politicians of both parties over a century of efforts. Nor should it dampen the joy of the moment when health care reform and universal coverage moved from a noble dream to the law of the land.
Lawmakers of this era, including President Obama, may accomplish many things in the years to come. But few will compare with that symbolized by this day, when, like the giants who preceded them, they ventured upon the bolder path in America’s ever upward moving journey, and gave to the future the promise of a brighter tomorrow.