"I think we have a moment in history when we can seize it and move forward," the President said before his televised address to Congress last night.
Ever since Roosevelt launched the Social Security system, the federal government has been gradually building a protective wall of legislation around its citizens.
'WE HAVE TRIED'
"We can never insure 100 percent of the population against 100 percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life," Roosevelt declared as he signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935. "But we have tried to . . . give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-stricken old age."
After Social Security, the protective wall grew, brick by brick, to include unemployment compensation; a minimum wage; aid to dependent children; public housing; food stamps; health care for the aged, the disabled and the poor; and the myriad other programs of the modern welfare state.
Democrats laid most of the bricks. But Republicans - even Ronald Reagan, the conservatives' idol - did not tear them down, even though their costs far exceeded early estimates and their benefits have sometimes seemed questionable.
Now Clinton is trying to cap the edifice with a health-care plan that would affect every man, woman and child in the land.
Achieving national health-care reform will be difficult, perhaps impossible. But earlier parts of the security wall did not come easily for the President's predecessors.
No sooner was the ink dry on the Social Security Act than conservatives challenged its constitutionality. It took two years before the Supreme Court upheld it in 1937.
National health insurance was first proposed in Congress in 1943, and Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, battled vainly to get it passed.
"I am trying to fix it so the people in the middle-income bracket can live as long as the very rich and the very poor," Truman wrote a friend in 1949.
But the medical establishment, aided by big business and the Republican Party, screamed "socialized medicine" and smothered Truman's plan.
Sixteen years later, Johnson, as a keystone of his Great Society, finally won approval of Medicaid and Medicare, federal health-care programs for the poor, the elderly and the disabled.
"I am proposing that every person over 65 years of age be spared the darkness of sickness without hope," Johnson said in his message to Congress proposing the legislation in 1965.
In 1970, a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, proposed a national health-insurance plan that would be financed, like Clinton's, by employer contributions. It did not pass. Jimmy Carter, the last Democratic president before Clinton, did not push the issue.
Health-care reform was a Clinton goal long before he ran for president. He worked on it as governor of Arkansas, and in his 1992 campaign book, Putting People First, he declared: "Health care should be a right, not a privilege."