Senator Kennedy inspires, and President Obama is there to lead the charge
"In our Catholic tradition, health care is a basic human right. Access to health care should not depend on where a person works, how much a family earns, or where a person lives. Instead, every person, created in the image and likeness of God, has a right to life and to those things necessary to sustain life, including affordable, quality health care."
--US Bishops' Statement on Healthcare, August 2009.
President Obama, in a nationally-televised address to a joint session of Congress, asserted his leadership in framing the key questions regarding reform of the dysfunctional US health insurance system. Received with thunderous applause from both Democrats and Republicans, he began this critical speech by reminding the audience about the peril that had threatened the US economy at the time of the inauguration. While acknowledging the suffering still endured by many families, he indicated that Congress had acted boldly to pull the country back from the brink of economic disaster. He invited them to do the same for healthcare.
"I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last," Mr. Obama said by way of introduction. Then he pointed out that a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, had first proposed the creation of a national healthcare system nearly 100 years ago.
President Obama then laid out three principles that he said were at the heart of any true reform effort: the system he seeks should provide more security and stability to those who already have health insurance. Second, it should provide insurance to those who don't have insurance. And finally, it must slow the growth of health care costs for families, businesses, and government.
The legalities of the plan would dictate "consumer protections for those with insurance, an exchange that allows individuals and small businesses to purchase affordable coverage, and a requirement that people who can afford insurance get insurance."
Alluding to some religious conservatives who had sought to defeat health reform by suggesting that the administration might expand abortion rights under the guise of new healthcare legislation, President Obama responded forcefully, "One more misunderstanding I want to clear up: under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place."
The President ended his speech on a deeply personal note, citing the inspiration of Senator Ted Kennedy and calling on the lawmakers to honor his memory by working together to solve the healthcare puzzle. The President read from a letter he had received posthumously in recent days from Senator Kennedy, saying, "Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick."
He quoted from the letter itself, which made a specific plea for victory in the healthcare fight: "It was the cause of my life. And in the past year, the prospect of victory sustained me--and the work of achieving it summoned my energy and determination." Using resonant Catholic language, Senator Kennedy said that such reform "concerns more than material things; that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."
In the end, President Obama's remarks were rousing, and reenergized the fight against the interests that profit so much from the current system. He pointed to Senator Kennedy's logic, that America's future economic success was contingent on solving the healthcare problem. With a list of specific ideas drawn from both Republicans and Democrats, he called for his plan to become a starting point in the weeks ahead. "We did not come to fear the future," he said. "We came here to shape it."