More recently, Harkin served as a key salesman of Obama's 2010 health care bill to the left. He has remained an advocate as the program has come under fire for a faulty enrollment website and for triggering insurers to cancel some individual policies. Harkin has also been active on a slew of other legislative priorities of late, including introducing legislation that would expand early childhood education.
"I just want to leave a legacy. Government is still an honorable profession. So is politics," said Harkin. "It's not bad, it's good. You can do things that make a positive difference in people's lives."
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat who has worked with Harkin on health and education legislation, said Harkin never forgets that he is working for people in need. He recalled a speech Harkin made about his father — a coal miner with an eighth grade education — getting a Medicare card for the first time and what it meant to him.
"(He's) someone who has a passion for those who need a voice," Casey said.
Harkin is part of a long tradition of Midwestern progressive politics that focuses on civil rights and government aid for the needy, as well as support for farming and environmental causes. This movement produced politicians like Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale, all Minnesota Democrats who unsuccessfully sought the presidency. George McGovern, a South Dakota lawmaker and presidential candidate, is another member of the clan.
But the senators who have more recently represented this branch of the Democratic party have largely left office. They include Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. Other longtime Democrats departing with Harkin are Montana Sen. Max Baucus and Michigan Sen. Carl Levin.
"I hope he's not the last, but (Harkin's) certainly one of the most prominent we've had in the Midwest," said Daschle, who now works for the DLA Piper law firm.