Obama Faces Test in Asserting His Own Brand of Patriotism

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."

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."

Democrats marvel at Obama's assertiveness. "He has a willingness to confront a theme that has traditionally been a real liability for Democrats," said Jim Jordan, who ran the early part of Kerry's 2004 campaign. "He talks about love of country in a more convincing and natural way than most Democrats do, than we've seen in a long time."

That has not stopped the attacks from coming. Karl Rove, President Bush's former chief strategist, recently chided Obama for his flag-pin decision, accusing him of declaring that if you do wear one, "you're not a true patriot." Republican pollster Whit Ayres called Obama "George McGovern without the military experience." Setting up a contrast, a recent McCain ad declared the Republican candidate "the American president America has been waiting for."

Pressed by Clinton at the Philadelphia debate, Obama said he expects "all kinds of attacks" but has confidence he can "talk to the American people honestly and directly about what I believe in." But he appeared flummoxed, as if unsure of how to handle insinuations about his patriotism from a fellow Democrat against whom he is more constrained in returning fire. And the hits have taken a toll. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center showed that 61 percent of voters viewed Obama as patriotic, compared with 76 percent for Clinton and 90 percent for McCain.

At the same time, Obama has consistently scored better than Clinton on most other personal traits, pointing to another reason he may be able to weather attacks on his patriotism more successfully than past Democrats -- his congenial nature and skills as a communicator. But still, there may be limits, said Pew Director Andrew Kohut. "He has an ability to take a really bad situation and handle it," Kohut said. "The question becomes how many more he can handle."

Since the controversies over his wife's comments and the Wright remarks, Obama has imbued his speeches with an even stronger patriotic touch, including frequent mentions of his grandparents' contributions during World War II.

"You want to know about my patriotism?" Obama said last week in Chapel Hill, N.C. "My patriotism is rooted in the fact that my story, Michelle's story, is not possible anywhere else on Earth. That the American dream, despite this country's imperfections, has always been there. . . . That there are ladders of opportunity that all of us can climb. That we're all created equal. That we're all endowed with certain inalienable rights -- life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. . . . That we're willing to shed blood for those liberties, we're willing to speak out for those liberties. . . . That we can make this country more just and more equal and more prosperous and more unified. That's why I love this country. That's why you love this country."

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated in the primary, said Obama's patriotic talk early in the campaign was a shrewd attempt to reshape the debate to guard against a future vulnerability. "In successful campaigns, you recognize your potential liabilities and figure out how to turn them into strengths," he said.

But David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said the candidate's patriotism has been at the center of his appeal since his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, which Axelrod said laid out Obama's vision that "we have a stake in each other as Americans, that we have a great legacy that we have to rally around." Axelrod said the message would stand up under assault. "A campaign for president of the United States reveals who you are, and who he is is someone who has experienced the greatness of America," he said. "I have ultimate faith in the American people to judge him and others for who they are."

Jordan, the former Kerry aide, said that much depends on what McCain does, since he might not "be the kind of man who would play this kind of dishonorable campaign against someone." So far, the Republican has spoken out against several third-party attacks on Obama but has also sharply criticized Wright's comments and has cast Obama as the favorite of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Interviews with voters show that Obama faces a mixed landscape. In Missoula, Mont., Tim Ellis, a retired teacher, said attacks on Obama's patriotism will not fly. "I have more confidence in the American people than that," he said. "This guy is as solid an American as you'll find."

But in southwestern Pennsylvania, Cindy Valcheck, a customer service worker and Democrat, said she would not vote for Obama in the fall because he "doesn't even pledge to the flag." And in Reading, Pa., truck driver Chris Dietrich, 37, a Democrat, said he is still bothered by Obama's link to Wright. "I don't like all of [Obama's] views, let's put it that way," he said.

In Kokomo, Obama leaped on the flag question. He again explained his lapel decision, saying he was put off by politicians who wore the flag pin but voted against funding for veterans, and described the national-anthem moment in Iowa, noting in a joking aside that many sports fans don't put their hands over their hearts during the anthem at games.

"This is a phony issue. . . . I've been saying the pledge since I was, what, 4?" he said to applause. "So I make this comment and suddenly a bunch of these TV commentators and bloggers say, 'Obama is disrespecting people who wear flag pins.' Well, that's just not true. Another way of saying it is: It's a lie. So . . . don't listen to them. Look at what I do and what I say and my commitment to making this a stronger country. I get pretty fed up with people questioning my patriotism, especially a bunch of folks who have instituted policies that have made America weaker. I am happy to have that debate with them, any place, any time. All right?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company