That's the president I voted for!

Let's hope the Obama who fired up labor on Monday is the guy who rallies Congress to fix health care on Wednesday

Published September 8, 2009 12:08PM (EDT)

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with union member Charlie Dilbert as he attends an AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic at Coney Island in Cincinnati, September 7, 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with union member Charlie Dilbert as he attends an AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic at Coney Island in Cincinnati, September 7, 2009.

Reuters/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with union member Charlie Dilbert as he attends an AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic at Coney Island in Cincinnati, September 7, 2009.

Barack Obama's Labor Day speech to an AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnati on Monday was strangely heartbreaking to me, both thrilling and painful. Painful because it felt so much like a fall 2008 campaign rally, back when this charismatic political superstar with an inspiring but untested trans-partisan appeal began to close the deal, pulling ahead of John McCain thanks to the economic meltdown and his tough-minded ideas about how to fix it. But a year later, Obama seems sadly mired in troubles he inherited, as well as those of his own making.

Yet it was thrilling because there was a glimmer that the promising newcomer has learned from his long hot summer of hate -- from kooks with guns at his appearances to sad, uninformed paranoid parents keeping their kids away from his "stay in school" speech on Tuesday -- and may finally deliver on the game-changing political promise that gave him the most presidential votes in American history last November.

I don't know what I expect from Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday -- who to believe about whether and how hard the president will argue for thorough-going, effective health care reform, which he has always said requires a public option. I just know that on Monday, I had the first stirring of confidence that Obama knows what's right here, morally and politically, and he'll do it in the end. I could be wrong; I've been wrong before about Obama (and much else.) But I loved the fighting Obama I saw Monday -- as well as the Obama who admitted he and we, his supporters, might be in a wee bit of a "funk" right now. When he told his trademark story of Greenwood, South Carolina city council woman Edith Childs pulling him out of an early campaign funk in 2007 with her trademark chant, "Fired up, ready to go!" my first reaction was oy, I've heard this before.  But Obama needed to tell the story yet again, to get out of his own summer doldrums and get fired up for the fight of his young presidency.

Of course I'm not sure which Obama will show up Wednesday night, the populist fighter we saw Monday or the post-partisan conciliator still looking for Republican votes on what may be the biggest issue of his presidency. My big reservation about Obama during the bitter Democratic primary was whether he knew how rough his road would be as president; I feared he believed  his own post-partisan rhetoric about "Obama-cans." I feel I have to explain the term now, because it turned out to be such a surreal fantasy: "Obama-cans" were Republicans who were voting for Obama. It turned out there were a relative handful of them; Obama got 9 percent of the Republican vote and John Kerry got seven. And they've all seemed to disappear now anyway, to let Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and a Congressional delegation that has no  ideas but "No" savage the promising president a few Obama-cans voted for in November.)

Let's not lie; these days are grim. I loved Bill Moyers' special letter to the president on his PBS show Friday night, so much that we printed it (with his gracious permission) on Salon. The Democrats are getting beaten because they can't talk about the corporate interests that have rigged this game against real reform: They can't talk about it because to do so is to be labelled some kind of "socialist" (and why is Sen. Bernie Sanders, God bless him, the only actual socialist in Congress, the main figure doing battle with the right on this issue?) And they can't do so because so many in their party are beholden to the insurance and pharmaceutical interests that have created this mess.

So it was enormously encouraging to see Obama come out swinging on Monday. The president knows that he needs to break the insurance companies' near monopoly in order to create competition, lower costs and give the government more bargaining power with health care and pharmaceutical interests. He knows that. But it must be said (as Marcy Wheeler did Monday): If Obama has any intention to trade away the public option, as many Beltway insiders assume, he made things much, much worse for himself Monday. The passion with which he defended the public option in Cincinnati -- and not merely passion, dispassion, because as he's said an uncountable number of times, it's the only known way to spur competition -- will come back to bite him if he horse trades on it down the line.

I don't know if anyone in the White House really knows the depth of the despair and anger such a move would trigger in his base -- which many dismiss as hardened lefties with no place else to go, but which I know first-hand includes older voters Obama cured of their cynicism, and younger voters who believe they can change the world. The only thing sadder than living in a world where Obama gives insurance companies a windfall of taxpayer dollars for their corrupt, inefficient racket, is thinking about the disillusionment among the people who worked their asses off for him through 20o8. If Obama betrays them, he'll regret it -- as a human being as well as a politician.

But I'm trying to be optimistic for now. On Monday, I felt like Obama knew that, personally. And I was encouraged. That funny, smart, passionate, populist guy we saw in Cincinnati? That's the guy I voted for in November. I'm counting on him to show up Wednesday night.

By Joan Walsh

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Barack Obama Healthcare Reform