Obama and his need to show the love


In his ongoing bid to reassure Americans that he, as an American, really truly does love America, what will Barack Obama feel compelled to do next? Dress up like James Cagney and sing "Yankee Doodle Dandy?" Show up as a guest on the Food Channel and share his personal recipe for all-American apple pie? Turn up this month at the All-Star game so that he can croon the National Anthem, preferably while dewy-eyed? Sew an American flag with his own needle and thread?

His first national TV ad was aimed at proving to Americans that the mixed-race guy with the funny name was sufficiently patriotic, and yesterday he plucked almost all the chords ("our heart swells with pride at the sight of our flag...we shed a tear as the lonely notes of Taps sound...America is the greatest country on earth") during remarks in swing-state Missouri, billed by his campaign billed as a major address. Presumably, skeptical voters will not fault him for failing to mention the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.

I have no problems with patriotic sentiment. I'm merely struck by the fact that Obama feels the need to keep stating the obvious (yesterday: "I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given"). Thanks in part to his exotic background, thanks in part to the lies mass-circulated on the Internet, thanks in part to the credulous ignorance of millions of potential voters, and thanks in part to the perception, still broadly held, that Democrats are weak national security stewards, Obama has no other choice.

So he sought yesterday to make the most of his situation. In his latest attempts to innoculate himself against future conservative attacks, he spent considerable time reassuring swing voters that he's not a stereoptypical '60s liberal.

For instance, consider this putdown of antiwar radicals: "Some of those in the so-called counter-culture of the '60s reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea of America itself; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world...There is nothing smart of sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America's traditions and institutions...I believe those who attack America's flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals, and our proven capacity to inspire a better world, do not truly understand America."

Most of those remarks could easily have been uttered by Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 and 1984 used those arguments to successfully woo swing-voting independents and conservative Democrats. And elsewhere in the speech, he echoed conservative sentiment (although this sentiment should not be limited to conservatives) with his complaint that schools today have stinted on civics, thus leaving "too many young Americans without the most basic knowledge of who are forefathers are, or what they did, or the significance of the founding documents that bear their names."

Obama also took a not-so-veiled swipe at moveon.org for its autumn newspaper ad assailing General David Petraeus, and he rebuked Wesley Clark, his own surrogate, for suggesting on a Sunday talk show that John McCain's POW status was an insufficient qualification for the presidency. (Obama: "no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign...We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period.")

Will wary voters warm to his recitation of patriotic childhood memories? It would not be a surprise if these anecdotes turn up again in his Democratic convention acceptance speech on Aug. 28. The line about how he handled his grandfather's World War II dogtags...that could work. The line about how, when he was a child in Indonesia, his mother would read to him by quoting from the Declaration of Independence...well, I wonder whether the wary will buy that one. By all accounts, his mom was indeed a unique woman, but that particular anecdote, told as proof of his patriotism, just seems a tad too perfect.

But then he made a daring pitch for himself: "For a young man of mixed race, without firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father's steadying hand, it is this essential American idea - that we are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make of our lives what we will - that has defined my life...That is why, for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people."

Translation: "You can love America even if you didn't grow up as a white guy rooted in the heartland. Patriotism is in the heart, not in the soul. It's portable, you can carry it with you, sort of like COBRA health insurance."  

But the meat of his speech - and, arguably, the theme with the greatest potential - was about the need to meld the two traditional views of patriotism: the conservative impulse to revere our glorious past and traditions; and the liberal impulse to revere our ideals, in the belief that America can be made better. His argument - a no-brainer, and one that fits with his bid to be a consensus-builder - is that we should be able to entertain both impulses simultaneously.

However, Obama stressed that the conservative impulse was dominant: "As I got older...in my mind, the joys of American life and culture, its vitality, its variety and its freedom, always outweighed its imperfections." No doubt he will hit this point repeatedly this summer, if only to counter the persistent viral whisperings. Which means that this whole exercise in patriot games arguably says more about our culture than it does about Obama.