The United States Postal Service is not in crisis. Nor is it broke. It is in transition. The only question is whether that transition will be toward irrelevance and eventual privatization, or whether this vital national resource will be allowed to provide needed public services and shore up rural communities and inner-city neighborhoods.

At the opening of the debate about the future of the service, it seemed as though the issue was settled. As with the debates about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the proponents of privatization were on the march, arguing that in the face of current and anticipated shortfalls, only deep cuts could “save” a popular public program. Even the postmaster general urged the embrace of a radical austerity plan that would shutter as many as 3,700 post offices, close up to 252 mail-processing centers, jeopardize more than 200,000 jobs and begin a contraction of service that seemed all but certain to force Americans to rely on corporate delivery services.

But the “crisis” was manufactured. In 2006 Republicans had forced the USPS to prefund retiree health benefits for seventy-five years into the future. This—not changes in the modes and manners of communication, not competition from FedEx, not that USPS employees are members of unions and earn decent pay—was the primary fiscal challenge facing the Postal Service. “No other government agency or private company bears this burden, which costs the USPS approximately $5.5 billion annually,” noted the American Postal Workers Union.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and a handful of others in Congress actually listened to the unions, which said the cuts were not necessary. Sanders got USPS Inspector General David Williams to review the books; his inquiry found that because of the prefunding burden, the USPS had “significantly exceeded” the level of reserves that the government or corporations have customarily maintained to meet pension and retiree healthcare demands. “Using ratepayer funds, it has built a war chest of over $326 billion to address its future liabilities,” said Williams.

That report, argued Sanders, put the “rationale for postal cuts in doubt.” And that doubt created an opening for the senator and his allies to force significant, if insufficient, changes to the 21st Century Postal Service Act, which the Senate considered in late April. Amendments reduced the prefunding burden, established some protections for rural post offices and processing centers, and delayed a devastating shift from six-day to five-day service for at least two years. To be sure, as National Association of Letter Carriers union president Fredric Rolando said, the measure is still “deeply flawed.” But even this progress is threatened as the postal debate heads to the less friendly House. Under pressure to act by May 15, when a moratorium on closures ends, the House could enact a worse measure. And much could be lost in the reconciliation process.

So this is the time to turn up the volume in defense of the PO, pressuring not just Democratic Congressional leaders but farm-state Republicans. Those Republicans need to feel the heat before their small-town constituents face the devastation caused by closures, which will further cut rural communities off from the rest of the country. There’s a large constituency for the USPS; more than 1 million Americans have signed “Save America’s Postal Service” petitions, and have held rallies across the country to resist cuts and closures. Americans “get” that the cuts are as unnecessary as they are unwise.

Unfortunately, Congress is likely to respond with little more than Band-Aids this year. This is where President Obama and the Democrats need to get smart. The party has been quite successful at pushing back against proposals by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan that would have strangled Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats should add the defense of the Postal Service to their agenda; it’s the right thing to do, and it’s smart politics in an election year, when the direction of the country could be decided in the rural counties of battleground states like Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maine.

The campaign message should not be one of mere defense, however. It must echo the call of Senator Patrick Leahy, who says, “The Postal Service needs a plan not only to survive but to thrive. To do that the Postal Service must listen to its customers, understand its market and play to its strengths.” Along with easing the prefunding burden, that plan should erase onerous regulations that have prevented the USPS from raising revenue.

But the USPS must do more than just compete with private delivery services. It should embrace the digital age by using post offices to help communities tap into broadband wireless communication. It should turn post offices into help centers offering a broad array of public services. And it should consider re-establishing the postal banking system the United States maintained until 1967, bringing basic financial services to underserved communities.

The USPS can continue to be what the founders intended when they established it in the Constitution: a vital public service that connects Americans and links America to the world. This is not a budget or regulatory question; it is a political one. Even Republicans are beginning to realize that the PO is popular; embracing and enhancing that popularity by making the future of the service a 2012 campaign issue would create the political will needed to prevent this treasure from being squandered in the name of austerity and privatization.