NPR logo President Obama Keeps Breaking Barriers, Making History

President Obama Keeps Breaking Barriers, Making History

President Barack Obama at the White House after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the health care reform legislation March 21, 2009. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama at the White House after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the health care reform legislation March 21, 2009.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jonathan Chait, blogging over at the New Republic, asserts that President Barack Obama's place in history was cemented by the Democrats' victory in getting their health-care overhaul passed. Chait acknowledges it might be a little early to declare the whole he's-earned-his-place-in-history thing but goes on and does so anyway.

Some of us thought Obama had pretty much made his claim to history by being the first African -American to occupy the White House. And so he did.

But that accomplishment is so 2008. In the presidency, as in life generally, the question always is: what have you done for me lately? Obama now has quite the answer.

It's self evident that if a president succeeds at doing something none of his predecessors did in 100 years of trying, that president has laid claim to a special place in history.

It's just the latest example of Obama breaking barriers as he has for much of his life, from becoming the first black Harvard Law Review president to the first black U.S. president to achieving comprehensive health care legislation.

The barriers he's shattering have gone from the obvious racial ones to the impediments of special interests and partisan obstruction that have existed for as long as there's been an American experiment.

Abraham Lincoln's supporters marketed him as the rail splitter. Obama's could market him as the barrier breaker.

Chait is right. No matter what happens from here on in, Obama will always be known as the president who achieved a comprehensive health-care overhaul.

His Nobel Price might be hard to minimize. Even the president has joked he probably didn't deserve it, at least not yet.

But no one will be able to take away from him the importance of passing the huge health-care makeover legislation. Even his critics should be willing to admit that it would be an impressive achievement for not just this president but any president.

An excerpt from Chait:

Let me offer a ludicrously premature opinion: Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import. We don't know what will follow in his presidency, and it's quite possible that some future event—a war, a scandal—will define his presidency. But we do know that he has put his imprint on the structure of American government in a way that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has.

The last two generations have no model for such a president. The only two other Democratic presidents of the last four decades are Jimmy Carter, a failure, and Bill Clinton, who enjoyed modest successes but failed in his most significant legislative fight. Obama, who helped pull the country out of a depression and reshaped the health care system, has already accomplished far more than Clinton. (This isn't necessarily Clinton's fault—he lacked the votes to break a Republican filibuster that Obama has—but the historical convention is to judge a president by what he and the Congress achieve together.) He will never be plausibly compared with Jimmy Carter.

Historians will see this health care bill as a masterfully crafted piece of legislation. Obama and the Democrats managed to bring together most of the stakeholders and every single Senator in their party. The new law untangles the dysfunctionalities of the individual insurance market while fulfilling the political imperative of leaving the employer-provided system in place. Through determined advocacy, and against special interest opposition, they put into place numerous reforms to force efficiency into a wasteful system. They found hundreds of billions of dollars in payment offsets, a monumental task in itself. And they will bring economic and physical security to tens of millions of Americans who would otherwise risk seeing their lives torn apart. Health care experts for decades have bemoaned the impossibility of such reforms—the system is wasteful, but the very waste creates a powerful constituency for the status quo. Finally, the Democrats have begun to untangle the Gordian knot. It's a staggering political task and substantive achievement.