Michelle Obama’s startling revelation that she wasn’t proud of America until her husband decided to run for president has provoked justifiable criticism, but the incident’s potential damage to Barack Obama’s political aspirations goes deeper than commentators have thus far realized.
“What we have learned over this year is that hope is making a comeback,” Michelle declared on Monday. “It is making a comeback. And let me tell you something — for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”
As John Podhoretz noted, “Michelle Obama is 44 years old. She has been an adult since 1982. Can it really be there has not been a moment during that time when she felt proud of her country?”
Her comments reflected a growing narcissism among the Obamas as they enjoy a media-nurtured ascendance to demigod status, and also displayed ingratitude to a nation that gave her the opportunity to rise from a working-class background to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School and pursue a successful legal career.
What is most striking about her remarks is that they stand in stark contrast to the tone that has characterized Obama’s rhetoric ever since he burst onto the national scene in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech.
FOR DECADES, Democrats have suffered at the polls because they exuded a generally negative attitude toward America — whether it was their “blame America first” foreign policy or class warfare rhetoric that demonized wealth and achievement.
The reason why Obama’s 2004 speech made him a rising star in politics is precisely that it broke from this tradition. He communicated a vision for liberalism that was patriotic and rooted in the American experience.
“I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible,” he said in Boston that year, with a sense of humility and gratitude that is at odds with the comments his wife made this week.
He announced, “Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation.” He quoted the Declaration of Independence, and described “the true genius of America.”
Having established common ground, he was able to make a case for liberalism as effective as you’ll ever see. Abandoning the bitter “people versus the powerful” rhetoric of Al Gore or the “two Americas” talk of John Edwards, Obama observed, “People don’t expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.”
Obama insisted, “alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we’re all connected as one people.”
While, as a conservative, I bristled at the obvious implications of his collectivist impulses, as an analyst, I couldn’t deny the speech’s rhetorical effectiveness. But its effectiveness was based on the fact that he came across as a liberal who loved America.
IN JANUARY, Obama got into trouble with Democrats for conceding that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America” by communicating an optimistic vision that tapped into what people were feeling at the time. Obama argued that, like Reagan, he could appeal to voters across party lines because of their eagerness for change.
The huge and enthusiastic crowds Obama has been drawing, the victories he has enjoyed all across the country, the gains he has made among white voters, and his strong showing among independents, all give credence to his claims. The fact that at Obama’s victory rallies there are actually chants of “U-S-A,” is a noteworthy development in modern Democratic politics.
If the Obama of 2004 wins the nomination and runs in the general election, he will have the potential not only to capture the White House, but to be the type of transformational leader that Democrats have been dreaming of for decades. But if he gives way to the arrogance and anti-Americanism exhibited by his wife this week, he’ll turn out to be just another liberal politician destined for a comeuppance.