In one of his first speeches since he left the White House, former president Barack Obama built a moral case against President Trump’s efforts to repeal his health care law, telling a Boston audience Sunday night that Congress has a duty to all Americans, not just the rich.
“I hope that current members of Congress recall that it actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential — but it does require some courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm,” Obama said at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, accepting the annual Profile in Courage Award on Sunday night.
Obama challenged lawmakers to put conscience ahead of party loyalty. He was responding to an all-Republican House vote last week to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his signature legislative accomplishment.
Democrats say the bill would undermine poor people’s health care while cutting taxes for the rich. The bill’s supporters argue it would help reduce health costs for many people.
“I hope they understand that courage means not simply doing what is politically expedient, but doing what they believe deep in their hearts is right,” Obama said.
The speech and award marked something of a coda to the sweeping political alliance between the Kennedy family and Obama. Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President Kennedy, endorsed Obama in January 2008, helping catapult him to the Democratic nomination and, eventually, the presidency.
And when, amid massive political blowback in 2009 and 2010 against what would become known as Obamacare, the president’s aides questioned his decision to spend so much political capital on the issue, Obama reportedly replied, “I promised Teddy.”
In his speech Sunday, Obama offered a paean to the vulnerable members of Congress who, in those years, took hard votes for the health reform law.
“These men and women did the right thing. They did the hard thing. Theirs was a profile in courage. Because of that vote, 20 million people got health insurance who didn’t have it before,” he said to applause. “And most of them did lose their seats.”
The president also offered a broader call for people to push back against the pull of parochialism.
“Everywhere, we see the risk of falling into the refuge of tribe, clan, and anger at those who don’t look like us, or have the same surname, or pray the way we do,” he said. “And at such moments, courage is necessary. At such moments, we need courage to stand up to hate — not just in others, but in ourselves.”
Obama received the award, created to honor the country’s 35th president, for his overall contributions to public life, including his achievements on key policy issues and his historic victory as the nation’s first African-American president, according to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which administers the award.
The speech was the culmination of a black-tie gala that, at times, seemed like an Obama White House reunion. The former president called out by name his wife, Michelle Obama, former vice president Joe Biden, and former secretary of state John F. Kerry, all of whom were in the audience.
But he did not mention his successor by name.
A relaxed Obama embraced his new role as president emeritus and cracked jokes throughout his remarks to a crowd filled with leaders of Massachusetts politics, business, education, philanthropy, religion, arts, and sports.
Obama accepted the award, a silver lantern, from Kennedy and her son, Jack Schlossberg. Kennedy thanked the president for having appointed her ambassador to Japan.
Other Kennedys at the event on windy Columbia Point in Dorchester included Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of senator Edward Kennedy, and Congressman Joe Kennedy III.
On the red carpet before the event, the state’s US senators, Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren, mingled not far from current and former Massachusetts constitutional officers, including Attorney General Maura Healey, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, and former governor Deval Patrick.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh was there. So were Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and Congressman Seth Moulton.
Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, eschewed the red carpet, instead slipping in a side door.
University of Massachusetts president Martin T. Meehan walked down the carpet, as did New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, retired late night TV host David Letterman, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, local political adviser Will Keyser, and famed historian David McCullough.
Asked about Obama’s legacy, McCullough said, “You have to wait 50 years for the dust to settle, but it looks good.”
As the former president arrived in Dorchester earlier, sporting a black bowtie and big smile in the back of an SUV, he waved to about 60 supporters who had gathered on Bianculli Boulevard, along the route to the library, to give the Democrat a “standing ovation.” They cheered and held signs like “We Miss You.”
The past four recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, created in 1989, were Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy; Bob Inglis, former US representative from South Carolina; former president George H. W. Bush; and the former mayor of Uvalda, Ga., Paul Bridges.
Other recipients include former US representative Gabrielle Giffords, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, US Representative John Lewis of Georgia, and US Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Obama closed his remarks Sunday by saying history does not move in a straight line. He challenged the room to continue to push for progress.
As he often did as president, Obama recalled a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., who said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Obama said that arc does not bend on its own.
“It bends because we bend it,” he said. “Because we put our hand on that arc and we move it in the direction of justice. And freedom. And equality, and kindness, and generosity. It doesn’t happen on its own.”