David Gergen | BIO
CNN Senior Political Analyst
President Obama and a Democratic Congress may be on the verge of passing various legislative initiatives that in ordinary times would likely be hailed as historic milestones. But will they be bold enough to meet the tests of the extraordinary times in which we live?
Consider the reform of health insurance that Congress is likely to pass before Christmas. By any normal measure, the President’s signature on such a bill would be an event of enormous significance. After all, seven other Presidents have tried to provide universal insurance coverage to the public; Barack Obama may well be the first to succeed. Some argue that it may be the most important social legislation since the Great Depression.
Yet experts who understand health care would argue that it will probably accomplish only half of what needs to be done. This is of concern since, as the saying goes, it doesn't work to leap a 20-foot chasm in two 10-foot jumps. It is worth remembering that the President himself has frequently declared that we face two huge challenges in health care: providing universal coverage AND bringing down the spiraling costs of care. Sadly, the bill that is shaping up will do precious little to “bend the curve” of health costs.
Massachusetts is often cited as a model of the health reform that Democrats are seeking this year: the law it passed a few years ago has indeed brought universal coverage (only 3 percent of the state’s population is no longer covered) but it has failed to bring down costs, and premiums in Massachusetts are the highest in the country.
The same general story is emerging from the President’s efforts to address climate change with comprehensive legislation called “cap and trade.” The House of Representatives has passed such legislation and prospects are growing that the Senate may actually overcome strong resistance and pass a bill next year. Again, by most normal standards, that would be considered a milestone.
Yet experts on the environment know full well that the cap and trade bill has been so watered down in the House that it will fail to bring carbon emissions under control with anything like the urgency that scientists say is necessary.
The inability of the United States to pass bold legislation this year has already reduced hopes that a successor to the Kyoto Treaty can be negotiated in Copenhagen this December, when nations from around the world assemble for what has been seen as one of the most important environmental gatherings ever held. China and India will not come along with a new treaty unless they see the United States and Europe also taking dramatic steps – and even then, getting their assent will be difficult.
A similar argument can be made about financial regulation – that the need is great, that we may get some legislation from Congress (chances are brightening for consumer protection), but what emerges may be far less than what the times demand.
What we are seeing is that the challenges facing the United States have become so enormous and so urgent that even with legislative achievements that would once be considered breakthroughs, it looks like we will fall frustratingly short of what we must do to remain a great people.
The President’s team argues that compromise is inevitable in politics and that we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Fair enough. If I were in the White House today, I might well be making the same arguments. But from an outside perspective – one not burdened by the agonizing efforts that the White House has made to get this far – it also seems we must be realistic with ourselves.
We must look reality squarely in the eye and recognize that the times demand that we not settle for climbing ordinary mountains; we must hoist ourselves up and climb extraordinary ones.
Are we asking enough of ourselves? Not yet, it appears.
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