Monday, May 08, 2017


The media headline from President Obama's speech accepting this year's Profiles of Courage award from the JFK Library inevitably was his defense of Obamacare, and his call for members of Congress to display courage in supporting its substance. The quotes were largely accurate and obviously President Obama knew what the headline was going to be, but these were only a few lines in the speech, and missing the context.

He didn't bring up the topic of the Affordable Care Act out of the blue.  First of all, its passage was, according to CNN, one of the reasons he was given the award: The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation said Obama received the award for "expanding health security for millions of Americans, restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and leading a landmark international accord to combat climate change."

It is an award honoring President John F. Kennedy, whose birthday this month is 100.  As a senator, JFK authored the book Profiles in Courage, about eight US Senators throughout history who exhibited principled courage in difficult political situations.  As President, JFK proposed the healthcare program that became Medicare.  His younger brother Senator Ted Kennedy, championed an expansion to all US citizens to make healthcare a right.

 In his speech, President Obama told a story about how Ted Kennedy walked the halls of the hospital where his young son was fighting for his life and talked to people there worried that they couldn't afford the next cancer treatment for their children.  He made healthcare his cause, and shortly before his death, urged President Obama to make it his first legislative priority.
Welcoming President Obama to Boston on Sunday

So in talking about courage in Congress, it was completely in context for President Obama to remember those who voted for the ACA, knowing they might lose their next election because of it--and many in fact did.  After talking generally about John and Bobby Kennedy as inspiring him to enter politics, he said:

"Our politics remains filled with division and discord, and everywhere we see the risk of falling into the refuge of tribe and clan, and anger at those who don't look like us or have the same surnames or pray the way we do.

And at such moments, courage is necessary. At such moments, we need courage to stand up to hate not just in others but in ourselves. At such moments, we need the courage to stand up to dogma not just in others but in ourselves. At such moments, we need courage to believe that together we can tackle big challenges like inequality and climate change. At such moments, it's necessary for us to show courage in challenging the status quo and in fighting the good fight but also show the courage to listen to one another and seek common ground and embrace principled compromise."

He spoke about the beginning of his presidency and the courage it took to vote for the Recovery Act, to support the auto industry and regulate Wall Street, and especially, the complex and previously impossible task of what came to be called (by his opponents) Obamacare:

"And there was a reason why healthcare reform had not been accomplished before. It was hard. It involved a sixth of the economy and all manner of stakeholders and interests. It was easily subject to misinformation and fearmongering.

And so by the time the vote came up to pass the Affordable Care Act, these freshmen congressmen and women knew that they had to make a choice. That they had a chance to insure millions and prevent untold worry and suffering and bankruptcy, and even death, but that this same vote would likely cost them their new seats, perhaps end their political careers.

And these men and women did the right thing. They did the hard thing. Theirs was a profile in courage. Because of that vote, 20 million people got health insurance who didn't have it before."

Many lost their seats in the 2010 elections, his said. And this was the context for his comments on the future:

"It was a personal sacrifice. But I know, because I've spoken to many of them, that they thought and still think it was worth it.

As everyone here now knows, this great debate is not settled but continues. And it is my fervent hope and the hope of millions that regardless of party, such courage is still possible, that today's members of Congress, regardless of party, are willing to look at the facts and speak the truth even when it contradicts party positions.

I hope that current members of Congress recall that it actually doesn't take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential. But it does require some courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm, those who often have no access to the corridors of power.

I hope they understand that courage means not simply doing what is politically expedient but doing what they believe deep in their hearts is right."

But then President Obama expanded his examples of profiles in courage to include ordinary people who sacrificed for their families, who did the right thing even when it was difficult.

He included political activists who worked nonviolently for change. And he powerfully restated his credo for involvement in creating political change, ending with a ringing call to keep the faith and keep working for the future:

"I know that the values and the progress that we cherish are not inevitable, that they are fragile, in need of constant renewal.

I've said before that I believe what
 Dr. King said, that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," but I've also said it does not bend on its own. It bends because we bend it, because we put our hand on that arch, and we move it in the direction of justice and freedom and equality and kindness and generosity. It doesn't happen on its own."

"And so we are constantly having to make a choice because progress is fragile. And it's precisely that fragility, that impermanence, that is a precondition of the quality of character that we celebrate tonight.

If the vitality of our democracy, if the gains of our long journey to freedom were assured, none of us would ever have to be courageous. None of us would have to risk anything to protect them. But it's in its very precariousness that courage becomes possible and absolutely necessary.

John F. Kennedy knew that our best hope and our most powerful answer to our doubts and to our fears lies inside each of us, in our willingness to joyfully embrace our responsibility as citizens, to stay true to our allegiance, to our highest and best ideals, to maintain our regard and concern for the poor and the aging and the marginalized, to put our personal or party interest aside when duty to our country calls or when conscience demands.

That's the spirit that has brought America so far and that's the spirit that will always carry us to better days."

Another video and full transcript of the speech is at TIME.

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