Senator Edward Kennedy was a fighting liberal, a lion to the very end–often among timid cubs. His final fight was for quality, affordable healthcare for all. As recently as July, Kennedy called it “the cause of my life” and argued eloquently that “quality care shouldn’t depend on your financial resources, or the type of job you have, or the medical condition you face.” In the coming months, President Obama and a Democratic Congress will determine whether that cause is realized. Obama has the chance to fix a healthcare system that fails nearly 50 million Americans with no insurance and millions more who are dangerously underinsured, or denied care, or driven into bankruptcy when they get sick.

Obama may turn out to be one of the few reform presidents in modern history–a potential that Senator Kennedy recognized when he endorsed his candidacy. A reform president takes on the status quo to improve the lives of the majority and ensure that America lives up to its ideals. Franklin Roosevelt was the very model of a reform president. Lyndon Johnson was pushed to become a reformer by the turbulence of his times.

When reform presidents take on the status quo, they confront ferocious, well-organized, reactionary opposition. We’re seeing today–with right-wing groups comparing Obama to Hitler and healthcare reform to socialism–what Roosevelt faced from the American Liberty League, which, heedless of the contradiction, alternated between calling him a socialist and a fascist. Like Obama, Roosevelt faced well-funded business lobbies. And in Catholic demagogue Father Coughlin, Roosevelt had his own Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck.

The rabid protesters opposing Obama are representatives of a long national tradition based in an irrational fear of a strong central government and buttressed by the insurance, hospital and pharmaceutical lobbies. The president acknowledged the parallels with older battles for reform when he said, “These struggles always boil down to a contest between hope and fear. That was true in the debate over Social Security, when FDR was accused of being a socialist. That was true when JFK and LBJ tried to pass Medicare. And it’s true in this debate today.”

Indeed, those words would be a valuable frame for the address on healthcare that Obama will deliver to a joint session of Congress on September 9. He would be wise to place his agenda in the long American tradition of reform–especially the two most popular programs of modern times, Social Security and Medicare, which were bitterly opposed by Republicans.

We hope the president, his Congressional allies and millions of Americans will be inspired to honor and do battle for Kennedy’s lifelong cause. Surely Obama knows that the Senate’s fighting liberal would not have put the fate of the nation’s healthcare into the hands of private insurance companies, which increase their quarterly earnings by denying people care. Reform is not possible without a public alternative to the private companies, one based on coverage for all and quality care rather than profit. A bill with a strong public option would be a victory for all those who seek a healthier, more humane country in which healthcare is a right, not a commodity.

Obama often speaks of his desire to get beyond the partisan divide, but what good is bipartisanship at this moment? The Republican Party, which long ago jettisoned its liberal wing, does not simply want to criticize or modify Democratic healthcare proposals. It is determined to cripple or kill reform, and with it Obama’s presidency–in the words of Senator Jim DeMint, to make the failure of healthcare legislation Obama’s “Waterloo.” It’s high time for Obama to part ways with the Party of No, which has been stoking outlandish fears about government “death panels” and “socialism,” and forge a solid majority of Democrats in support of sweeping reform–including as many Blue Dogs as will sign on for the sake of the country and the party. So far, these conservative Democrats have been listening to the lobbies and their well-funded scare machine, not to the American people, who want protection from grasping insurance companies that give less and less coverage at more and more cost.

With large majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats have the best chance in years to pass a strong bill, and they should do it by any means necessary–and that includes using the budget reconciliation or cloture process to block a GOP filibuster. If the Dems put forth a watered-down “bipartisan” bill with no public option, they will be justly blamed for its inevitable failure–and will see ugly results in the 2010 midterm elections. If, on the other hand, Republicans manage to defeat a good bill, let them try to explain themselves to midterm voters, who will still be at the mercy of Big Insurance and Big Pharma.

As Mike Lux explains in The Progressive Revolution, every so often in American history a window to change opens, and the combination of crisis, leadership and movement makes reform possible. “That window is open right now,” Lux writes, “and President Obama, to his credit, is trying to keep it open.” If Obama gives up this fight and caves in to lobbyists–and if Congressional Democrats and the grassroots fail to deliver the support he needs–that window will slam shut, and with it the chance for reform, which might not come for another generation.

That would be a tragedy–and no way to honor the Lion of the Senate.