Taking One for the Country
July 02, 2012, 3:00am


IN my mind, there are two lessons from the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision to support President Obama’s health care plan: 1) how starved the country is for leadership that puts the nation’s interest before partisan politics, which is exactly what Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. did; and 2) the virtue of audacity in politics and thinking big. Let’s look at both.

It was not surprising to hear liberals extolling the legal creativity and courage of Chief Justice Roberts in finding a way to greenlight Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But there is something deeper reflected in that praise, and it even touched some conservatives. It’s the feeling that it has been so long since a national leader “surprised” us. It’s the feeling that it has been so long since a national leader ripped up the polls and not only acted out of political character but did so truly for the good of the country — as Chief Justice Roberts seemingly did.

I know that this was a complex legal decision. But I think it was inspired by a simple noble leadership impulse at a critical juncture in our history — to preserve the legitimacy and integrity of the Supreme Court as being above politics. We can’t always describe this kind of leadership, but we know it when we see it and so many Americans appreciate it.

This is still a moderate, center-left/center-right country, and all you have to do is get out of Washington to discover how many people hunger for leaders who will take a risk, put the country’s interests before party and come together for rational compromises. Why do we all jump up and applaud at N.B.A. or N.F.L. games when they introduce wounded Iraq or Afghan war veterans in the stands? It’s because the U.S. military embodies everything we find missing today in our hyperpartisan public life. The military has become, as the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel once put it, “the last repository of civic idealism and sacrifice for the sake of the common good.”

Indeed, I found myself applauding for Chief Justice Roberts the same way I did for Al Gore when he gracefully bowed to the will of the Supreme Court in the 2000 election and the same way I do for those wounded warriors — and for the same reason: They each, in their own way, took one for the country.

To put it another way, Roberts undertook an act of statesmanship for the national good by being willing to anger his own “constituency” on a very big question. But he also did what judges should do: leave the big political questions to the politicians. The equivalent act of statesmanship on the part of our politicians now would be doing what Roberts deferred to them as their responsibility: decide the big, hard questions, with compromises, for the national good. Otherwise, we’re doomed to a tug of war on the deck of the Titanic, no matter what health care plan we have.

I see no sign of Mitt Romney being ready for such a “Roberts moment.” I still have hope for Obama. He’s entitled to a victory lap for daring to go big — ignoring his advisers — to bring health care to the whole country. It’s a huge achievement.

But he needs to go just as big on the economy if he wants the Affordable Care Act to be something we can actually afford. That requires economic growth. Yet Obama’s campaign has been all small-ball wedge issues, trying to satisfy enough micro-constituencies to get 50.1 percent of the vote.

Listen to the broad reaction to Roberts. Look at the powerful wave he has unleashed for big, centrist, statesmanlike leadership. That all tells me that people are also hungry for a big plan from the president to fix the economy, one that will bite and challenge both parties at the scale we need, fairly share the burdens and won’t just be about “balancing the budget,” but about making America great again.

The opportunity for such a plan is hiding in plain sight. America today is poised for a great renewal.

Our newfound natural gas bounty can give us long-term access to cheap, cleaner energy and, combined with advances in robotics and software, is already bringing blue-collar manufacturing back to America. Web-enabled cellphones and tablets are creating vast new possibilities to bring high-quality, low-cost education to every community college and public school so people can afford to acquire the skills to learn 21st-century jobs. Cloud computing is giving anyone with a creative spark cheap, powerful tools to start a company with very little money. And dramatically low interest rates mean we can borrow to build new infrastructure — and make money.

“We are at a transformational moment in terms of our potential as a country, and we have two candidates playing rope-a-dope,” said David Rothkopf, author of “Power, Inc.”

If we can just get a few big things right today — a Simpson-Bowles-like grand bargain on spending and tax reform that unleashes entrepreneurship, a deal on immigration that allows the most energetic and smartest immigrants to enrich our country and a plan on energy that allows us to tap all these new sources in environmentally safe ways — no one could touch us as a country. Connect the dots for people, Mr. President — be the guy taking the risk to offer that big plan for American renewal, and Romney will never be able to touch you.