Flag-waving rhetoric arrives at the mid-point in his first term. Is it too late?
One of the criticism often voiced of Barack Obama is that he is not proud of his own country. That conclusion, reached primarily (though not exclusively) because of a lack of pro-America content in his public expressions, may be unfair. After all, the lack of an expression of pride in American is not the same as a denial of that same pride. Indeed, many (perhaps most) politicians hide behind overt expressions of patriotism rather than deal with the real issues of the day. At the same time, Americans want to be proud of their country, and there is a certain expectation that the Commander-in-Chief will also be the Cheerleader-in-Chief. This does not require constant expressions of patriotism, nor does it require dishonesty. What it does require is a willingness to stand up and say, in a way that few others have the position or influence to do, that America will continue to be the standard-bearer for the ideals on which she was founded and for which her people have died.
The rallying cry of the 2008 campaign was, “Yes we can!” It was an anthem for those who felt they had been abandoned by their government, a uniting force for those who were reasserting their influence in the political process. For those people, the ardent supporters of Barack Obama’s run for the presidency, it was patriotic. But it was not a unifying message for the entire country. Mr. Obama’s campaign rhetoric did not need flag-waving; after all, that was what Republicans and hawkish Democrats did. His people were wary of such expressions. Once the election was over, the tenor of the political conversation in America remained essentially unchanged. The party in power stuck with what had worked for the election, while the Republicans, always comfortable draped in the flag, had a near monopoly on traditional patriotic expression.
The times, however, were not in the Democrats favor. In the face of continued economic downturn and stiff challenges abroad, the mood in the country was, to put it lightly, glum. The American dream was proclaimed dead in one opinion piece after another. But this was not the natural state of things. Underneath all of the layers of American culture is a constant current, a drumbeat that this country is always moving upward, able to surmount any challenge. Americans know this, not in a cognitive sense, perhaps, but it is the norm that they expect. Increasingly, Americans became weary of doom and gloom and, most of all, of feeling un-American.
And so the sitting president found himself in a peculiar position. His own lack of patriotic expression put him on the wrong side of the fence, allied with the depressing and, ironically, hopeless times. His approval ratings dropped. Moreover, his country was in desperate need of the clarion call that many presidents before had sounded, the message that would lift their spirits, restore hope, and embolden them to action. It was message that he, by way of his own style, was ill-equipped to deliver. His ratings dropped.
The resurrection of such a presidency cannot come easily. Nor can it come on the back of disingenuous expressions. Fate, however, was kind to Barack Obama. In the tragedy of the shooting in Arizona, he was provided with an opportunity to bring a change to his own rhetoric. The occasion called for a reassuring, uniting message. He could introduce a pronounced patriotism to his remarks and there would no need to question his motives. In this year’s state of the union address, the president delivered.
The new Barack Obama, sporting a flag pin on his lapel, waved the flag all over the chamber of the House of Representatives. He reached back to the country’s roots, citing principles established in the Constitution. He recounted our victories over challenges in the 20th century. He stated clearly — and proudly — a number of areas where America continues to lead the world, despite our battered economy. He declared the American dream alive and well. And he called Americans to rise to the occasion and tackle the challenges of the future.
It was inspiring and, more importantly, refreshing. And Mr. Obama delivered the message convincingly, with genuine charisma. Were this Bill Clinton, I would be tempted to say it was all a show. But this is not the Clinton era. Mr. Obama, for whatever faults he may have, is not an disingenuous person. He is a person of principle. His message tonight rang true. But is this revelation of patriotism something that will last? And is it too late?
You may call me naive, but I believe that the words spoken in the state of the union were the words of a changed man. Whether it was the tragedy in Arizona, or the compounding negativity of a nation adrift in economic downturn, or both, or even something else, Barack Obama has recognized the call and risen to the occasion himself. He has unearthed his own patriotism and found reason to proclaim it proudly. It will last.
Is it too late? That question remains to be answered. Two years into his term and barely a year away from the start of the next election cycle, he has a lot of ground to cover. A consistent presence of a genuine and encouraging pro-America message will go a long way, but he will also need to demonstrate that he can compromise, work across the aisle, and bring his own party along for the ride. That’s a tall order, and it could be short-circuited by both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. If he can continue to convincingly communicate a pro-America message directly to the people of the country, however, he can get them on his side. If he does that, Barack Obama can do big things.