All Democrats with an IQ above room temperature understand the gigantic stakes involved in the success - or failure - of President Barack Obama's commitment to overhaul the nation's healthcare system. Those stakes include nothing less than the political fate, fortune and future of this still-new Democratic administration and, quite possibly, the continued survival of Democratic majorities in the Congress.
In hushed, off-the-record conversations, nervous Democrats concede their nagging concern about the gifted young president. While almost everyone in both parties freely acknowledges Obama's exceptional intellect and temperament, doubts persist about his political toughness. As Mr. Dooley, the legendary saloon keeper-philosopher, famously observed, "Politics ain't beanbag."
Whenever any questions were raised during the long 2008 campaign about his toughness, Candidate Obama had variations of a one-size-fits-all response: Either, "In terms of my toughness, look, first of all, I come from Chicago politics," or, "I come from Chicago politics - we're accustomed to rough and tumble ..."
One frequently expressed worry among Democrats is that President Obama learned too well the lessons from the mistakes made on health care in 1994 by President Bill Clinton's administration, when congressional Democrats - including such significant health-care thinkers as Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George Mitchell and Bill Bradley - were excluded from the drafting of the health-care legislation, which was written in secret by the Clintons in the White House.
In the writing of the 2009 health-care legislation, the Obama White House has very nearly given the Congress carte blanche. It has always been expected that, at the crucial moment, President Obama would step in, assert himself, and resolve the thorny differences between the House and the Senate.
That day has more than come.
Consider, for a moment, the political situation of House Democrats - many of whom have already cast a politically controversial and potentially costly vote on the climate-change bill and who now are expected to back a Democratic health-care bill that, over the next 10 years, includes a $540 billion tax increase assessed on individuals earning more than $280,000 a year or married couples with an annual income above $350,000.
House Democrats, admittedly not a universally beloved group, fret about being "hung out to dry" after voting for chancy bills that never even make it to the Senate floor. Understandably, Democrats in the House ask just when their "fellow" Democrats in the Senate will start casting some tough votes.
Crunch time has arrived. President Ronald Reagan, who survived more than a few showdowns with Capitol Hill, said about dealing with the Congress, "When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat."
Health-care reform was the life's mission of Sen. Ted Kennedy. He is truly irreplaceable within the Congress. But President Obama must step into the breach, and he must personally take individual Democrats to the woodshed. Loyalty to the president in this fight must be rewarded, and those who cross him on this defining issue of health-care reform must pay a political price - and that price must be known by their colleagues.
Only the president can make clear to his fellow Democrats that if Democrats fail, before the 2010 election, to pass genuine health-care reform, then not only will the Obama administration be judged as having failed, but there will be no place to hide politically for congressional Democrats.
Voters generally do not question the good intentions of liberals, but they often do harbor serious doubts about the toughness of the garden-variety "can't we all get along" liberal. It's now time for Barack Obama to show the Congress his iron fist and the country his steel backbone. His presidency hangs in the balance.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.