PATRIOT GAMES

By MICHAEL A. COHEN From Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.) Last week, Barack Obama traveled to Indep...

By MICHAEL A. COHEN From Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.)

Last week, Barack Obama traveled to Independence, Mo., to talk about patriotism, a perennial campaign topic that has taken on added relevance this year. Obama’s earlier refusal to wear a flag lapel pin, his failure to put a hand over his heart during the playing of the national anthem, his supposed Muslim lineage have all been seized upon by his opponents to make the case that Obama is somehow “not one of us.”

Unfortunately, in his remarks, Obama missed an opportunity to move beyond this nonsense. By focusing largely on his own personal definition of patriotism as a means of inoculating himself from scurrilous rumors Obama failed to make the more important argument of what he is prepared to ask of the American people.

Indeed, Obama should seize the opportunity to redefine patriotism, particularly as military service has become the primary means by which national devotion is defined in America today. For the millions of Americans who choose not to join the armed services, Obama must lay out what he believes are their patriotic responsibilities.

In his speech, Obama sought to straddle the divide that exists between what the July 7 Time magazine cover story calls the patriotism of affirmation, which appeals more to conservatives, and the patriotism of dissent, which is particularly cherished by liberals. On the one hand, he said: “For me, as for most Americans, patriotism starts as a gut instinct, a loyalty and love for country rooted in my earliest memories.” And on the other: “When our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expression of patriotism.”

But it’s not clear that embracing a little of the conservative and a little of the liberal definitions of patriotism will work. Conservative commentators like Jonah Goldberg continue to intimate that “at the end of the day the patriotic American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is.”

And even Time magazine’s Joe Klein complains of a “chronic disease among Democrats, who tend to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right.”

The debate over patriotism is still being waged on conservative turf. And one can be sure that John McCain, who seems to focus his greatest patriotic respect on those who have served in the military, will continue to trod this ground. Instead, Obama should shift the patriotism conversation – much the way he did with his race speech in Philadelphia last April – by offering a redefinition of our civic duties as citizens. He should ask and answer the question: Short of taking up arms, how do citizens today demonstrate their devotion to America?

Obama offered a useful sermon on what America means to him, but he failed to spell out a more robust understanding of patriotism at a time when the country faces grave challenges that demand national sacrifice. Indeed, he only offered two paragraphs about the importance of national service in his speech. (Though he spoke at greater length on this issue later in the week, he offered more of a laundry list of items than a national call to arms.)

Obama must find a way to seamlessly merge patriotic devotion with national service and civic responsibility so the country can move beyond the stale notion that patriotism is the dominant province of our fighting men and women. As a former community organizer in Chicago, he understands well the many ways in which love of country can be expressed.

Obama can bridge Americas patriotic divide by demanding of Americans the sacrifice that has been lacking not just for the last eight years, but indeed for much longer. Since McCain has chosen to emphasize military service over national service and President Bush has asked little sacrifice from Americans in the post-9/11 world, defining patriotism need not be seen by Obama as a vulnerability to be mitigated, but instead an opportunity to be mined.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy spoke of a New Frontier that appealed to the American peoples “pride, not to their pocketbook” and that held “the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.” These were courageous words that at a time of national drift reminded a generation of Americans that they had genuine responsibilities to their country and flag. They are the kind of words that many Americans crave to hear now; and Obama should not be afraid to challenge the American people. Not only is it smart politics but, one could argue, it is his patriotic responsibility to the country he seeks to lead.

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July 8, 2008

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