The health care summit failed to bring Republicans and Democrats together. Still, the debate represents a turning point.

February 2010 could well go down in American history. Never before had a president sat with the opposition party in front of live television cameras for nearly nine hours to debate a pressing economic, social and medical problem. This day could well be considered the turning point, not only for the moribund health care reform issue, but also for the political future of Barack Obama and his Democratic Party.

To avoid any misunderstanding, it must be said from the beginning that the Democrats and Republicans gathered at the table didn’t even get close to consensus. The fundamental differences separating them remain. Republicans accuse Democrats of planning a government takeover of the entire health care industry; Democrats accuse Republicans of ignoring the enormous problems that must be solved.

Democrats want comprehensive health care reform that would include affordable insurance coverage for at least 30 million of the 47 million Americans currently without insurance. And they want governmental oversight of private insurers that would put an end to insurers excluding individuals from insurance or withholding coverage based on cost factors.

Republicans, on the other hand, want to enact reforms in small steps. They distrust sweeping reforms and fear the development of a gigantic government bureaucracy. Their priorities are to reduce costs across the industry, rein in the horrendous costs of medical litigation and, in general, believe that a more competitive private market is the best answer.

Obama was unable to resolve these ideological differences. He was, however, successful in masterfully exposing them and making it clear he was on the side of the common people. His knowledge of the current system’s inequities and the complexities of reforming it were second to none. But he didn’t allow himself to get bogged down in details; he maintained his focus on the larger picture.

Wherever necessary, Obama donned the medical expert’s white coat; but he mainly wore the blue business suit of a president in charge of everything, ready for compromise. He was an expert role player.

Thursday, February 25th, could prove to be the decisive turning point. Not because Obama succeeded in embracing the opposition, but because he succeeded in clearly demonstrating to the American public where he stood: In favor of more justice and better conditions — for those without insurance as well as for those with.

Obama gained some space to prepare for another run on Congress. Legislation must now be forthcoming, either unilaterally from Democrats or in slimmed-down form with the backing of a few Republicans. But it’s immaterial how and with what parliamentary tricks the legislation comes into being: It must come about if the president is to retain the power to govern. Anything else would be fatal, not only for him but for the Democratic Party as well.

Health care reform is an economic, social, political and a moral imperative. Republican as well as Democratic politicians at the summit all praised the American healthcare system as the best. If they ever fell ill, none of them would want to receive care anywhere else in the world.

Given the health insurance they enjoy, those politicians are probably right. But for millions of other Americans it doesn’t apply. On the same day of the summit, 14,000 more Americans lost their jobs along with their health insurance, and 1,000 more people died because they had no health insurance.