I had barely begun reading the transcript of Barack Obama's Berlin speech when the alarm bells clanged in my head. Right there, in the second paragraph, was big trouble. Note the italicized phrase. Obama said:
"I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before, although tonight I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen, a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world."
Oh my. What better way to inflame the conservatives back home, than to call yourself a citizen of the world? In political terms, that's like throwing a pound of raw meat into a pen of pit bulls. In certain American circles, that phrase is code for insufficient Americanism, for pernicious multicultural internationalism, and it conjurs up the specter of blue-helmeted United Nation peacekeepers pushing us around and forcing us to act (gasp) French. So I figured it was only a matter of time before Obama's critics cut loose. And indeed it was.
The McCain campaign naturally flagged the phrase, with a bit of drive-by snark: "While Barack Obama took a premature victory lap today in the heart of Berlin, proclaiming himself a ''citizen of the world,' John McCain continued to make his case to the American citizens who will decide this election."
Meanwhile, on Fox News, guest commentator Patricia Murphy opined, "When (Obama) said that he's a citizen of the United States and a citizen of the world, listen to the contrast with John McCain at the end of his (current TV) ad. He said, 'country first.' I think that will be the difference between the two campaigns going forward."
Over at the blog sponsored by The Weekly Standard (like Fox News, a Rupert Murdoch property), Dean Barnett believes that the phrase is symptomatic of a major character flaw: "To (Obama), referring to oneself as a 'citizen of the world,' may sound like the kind of meaningless lofty language that he specializes in. But 'citizen of the world' is actually a pretty freighted term, given the context that this particular citizen of the world wants to be president of the United States. Perhaps Obama's ego has grown so large that he figures one country, even the world's lone superpower, is no longer worthy of his leadership. A quick prediction - the 'citizen of the world' mess-up will be one of the issues that frames the rest of the election."
But first prize for high dudgeon goes to Rush Limbaugh. I hesitate to quote him here, because it risks lowering the ambient IQ of this blog, but I do so because he reaches such a vast audience. Here's some of what his listeners heard yesterday: "One of the things about this 'citizen of the world' stuff, I understand what he means by it. You know, we've all got to come together and get along and all of this, but I tell you, I'm growing weary of Democrats and their presidential candidates finding something wrong with being an American citizen. Or maybe not finding something wrong with it, but wanting to deemphasize American citizenship...why isn't it good enough to say, 'I'm a proud United States citizen coming to speak to you today'...why go over (to Berlin) and pander? Why is it that these people have so much trouble saying uplifting things about their own country?"
One is tempted to point Limbaugh to the speech itself, which says all kinds of uplifting things about this country ("I love America," Obama intoned), and says nothing about any deemphasis of American citizenship, but why bother. It's more useful to simply point out that the purportedly scary phrase in question is not an Obama invention. In fact, it can be traced back to the colonial era, when Thomas Paine, one of the most incendiary fighters for American liberty, employed it in a speech. He said that "as a citizen of the world," he opposed the execution of a European monarch.
And if Thomas Paine is not sufficiently persuasive, perhaps this line from a presidential speech might work: "I speak today as both a citizen of the United States, and of the world." That's from an address to the United Nations, delivered in 1982. By Ronald Reagan.
No matter. Republicans and conservative activists view the phrase as a potential weapon against Obama because, quite frankly, it might underscore suspicions about Obama that persist within the electorate. There is still considerable wariness about this new face on the national scene; it's reflected in the latest national polls. Fairly not, his exotic profile is a potential hindrance for many swing voters. Any sign that Obama might be insufficiently "country first" (as the Fox News commentator put it), or perhaps a tad too post-nationalist in his rhetoric, could raise the bar even higher.
And, yes, Ronald Reagan did call himself a citizen of the world. But he was a white guy from Dixon, Illinois; nobody questions his all-American pedigree. Obama, by contrast, was fathered by a guy who herded goats in Kenya. Some swing voters could hear his "citizen of the world" invocation as merely further proof of his exoticism, and - as Dean Barnett suggested - that could create an opening for the Republicans to exploit. (No doubt the GOP was bemused yesterday when an editor of the French newspaper Le Figaro lauded Obama as "somebody who reasons the way we do in Europe." What could be worse, from the GOP's standpoint, than to be praised by the effete French?)
One other Ronald Reagan analogy is worth noting, however. At this exact phase of the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan was widely seen as a risky candidate who needed to craft a comfort level with swing voters if he had any hopes of winning in November. He ultimately did so. That will be Obama's essential task as well. In essence, he will need to convince those wary fence-sitters that reaching out as a citizen of the world - and rebuilding America's image in the world - is a true act of patriotism.