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Obama Faces Test in Asserting His Own Brand of Patriotism

Barack Obama, with a giant flag at a North Carolina Democratic Party event Friday in Raleigh, has been criticized by some for not pinning a tiny one to his lapel.
Barack Obama, with a giant flag at a North Carolina Democratic Party event Friday in Raleigh, has been criticized by some for not pinning a tiny one to his lapel. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

The questions come on cable and radio talk shows, and sometimes from skeptical voters at his own rallies. "Hi, Barack. I am a supporter, a believer and a volunteer for you, and I'm trying to convince my mother to be one also," a woman said at a campaign event last week in Kokomo, Ind. ". . . One of the issues she has heard is that you do not address the flag."

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As Sen. Barack Obama tries to secure the Democratic presidential nomination and turn his attention to the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain -- a war hero who survived more than five years in enemy captivity -- he is facing a crucial test of one of his driving themes: redefining what it means to be a patriot.

After watching past Democratic candidates wither under Republican attacks, Obama has sought throughout his campaign to present his own vision of patriotism, with a call for uniting the country and restoring its values that is, in its way, as redolent with gauzy American exceptionalism as the "shining city upon a hill" of Ronald Reagan.

In forceful tones, he has warned against using the Sept. 11 attacks to "scare up votes instead of as a way to bring the country together," condemned the "politics of fear," and demanded an end to the "mind-set that got us into war" in Iraq. When asked in October why he does not wear an American-flag pin on his lapel, he took the question head-on, saying he had worn one after the terrorist attacks but had stopped because it "became a substitute for . . . true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security."

Last week, it became more apparent just how much Obama has riding on the bet that Americans are prepared to define love of country the same way. His former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., resurfaced with new fiery commentary on the nation, prompting Obama to break with him a day later.

Republicans and conservative commentators added the episode to their evidence portraying Obama as out of the mainstream -- his association with a former member of the Weather Underground; wife Michelle's declaration that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" because of her husband's electoral success; his remarks about "bitter" small-town voters; and false rumors that he does not pledge allegiance to the flag, sparked by a photograph showing him singing the national anthem at an Iowa fair without his hand over his heart.

Adding to Obama's challenge is the Republicans' selection of McCain, who with his ever-present Navy cap, military lineage and loyal following of fellow veterans exudes traditional notions of patriotism. A McCain-Obama race would present a contrast between a battle-scarred former fighter pilot who believes in seeing through the war in Iraq, and a man 25 years his junior whose half-Kenyan roots symbolize Americans' increasingly diverse origins, who did not serve in the military, and who argues that the country's values have been threatened, not upheld, by the Iraq war.

Republicans have in the past capitalized on lesser contrasts, painting Michael S. Dukakis and Al Gore as disconnected from real America, and even questioning the principles of decorated war veterans such as George McGovern and John F. Kerry.

Joining in the criticism has been Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has stoked party anxieties about his electability by warning about the charges Republicans will make against him, while making some herself. In one ad in Pennsylvania, she seized on Obama's small-town comments to cast him as an elitist, and in another, she implied that he is not ready to handle national security.

In effect, she is countering Obama's attempt to reframe the patriotism debate with a far darker -- and, some would say, more realistic -- analysis of the political landscape. At a debate in Philadelphia, she said that his association with the former Weatherman was "an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising" and that his relationship with his former pastor raises "questions in people's minds."

Obama campaigned from the start as if sure such questions will not resonate, particularly with younger voters open to new notions of patriotism and at a time when voters are preoccupied with the economy and the war. Past Democrats have sought to prove their patriotic and security credentials on Republican terms -- Dukakis riding in a tank, Kerry declaring at the 2004 convention that he was "reporting for duty." Not Obama. In his stump speech, he says that as commander in chief he would "keep you safe" and "not hesitate to strike at those who would do us harm," but he also argues for restoring the country's values abroad, saying that "there's no conflict between our safety and our security and our standing in the world."

Buttressing this position are repeated encomiums to American goodness and potential: "I believe the American people are a decent people and a generous people," he says. "What I was banking on was if we could just draw our forces together . . . then I was certain there was no problem we could not solve, and there was no destiny we would not fulfill."


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