Senator Obama And Patriotism

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[Elections 2008]


Barack Obama yesterday kicked off a week of patriotic speeches. It's much more than the normal politician's July 4 oration - it's Obama's answer to a crucial test.

After all, millions of Americans have seen the tapes of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright - Obama's longtime pastor - damning America, painting our nation as the world's villain. So voters have a right to wonder how pro-American Obama really is.

A question on such an existential level is unusual in politics - but so is Rev. Wright.

Obama's first "patriotism" speech yesterday struck just the right notes in articulating his love of America. If he keeps it up, it will go far toward easing voters' concerns.

The candidate included the usual anti-war rhetoric and noted our failings ("ongoing racial strife," "perversions of our political system," "the wrenching poverty of the Mississippi Delta") - but also paid due homage to the nation that is giving him the opportunity to become its leader.

More, he let us know he understands that America is the leading force for good in the world - referring to his "gut instinct that so many of us have, that America is the greatest country on Earth."

He praised "the joys of American life and culture - its vitality, its variety, its freedom" and noted that they had "always outweighed its imperfections." He said that what "makes America great has never been its perfection, but the belief that it can be made better."

The president is the high priest of our secular religion. From that pulpit, Ronald Reagan affirmed his belief that God placed us as a unique nation between two oceans to offer a beacon of liberty and hope to the world. Abraham Lincoln called the United States the "last best hope of Earth."

Does Obama embrace this secular faith ardently enough to be its priest? The question lingered after Wright's expostulations.

Obama made it worse by dealing defensively with patriotism - attacking those who questioned his and wondering aloud if wearing a flag in his lapel was a form of pandering. These musings left us in doubt that he really disagrees with Wright, and really embraces the idea that America is exceptional.

But his "patriotism offensive" shows that he's learning how to assuage those fears.

Coming out of the primaries, Obama had separate female and male problems. The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling on guns likely solves his woman problem - worries about preserving Roe v. Wade should now bring female voters flocking back.

But Hillary Clinton's male voters will be a harder sell. In the extreme, their worries about Obama's patriotism even leave some fearing that he could be a sleeper agent sent to the US to destabilize our system. He needs to soothe them at a very fundamental level.

If he keeps striking the same notes as yesterday, Obama can do that. He'll still face attacks on his plans to raise taxes to intolerable heights or to wreck our health-care system by covering 15 million illegal immigrants - but that's normal politics.


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