If George Bush and Dick Cheney accomplished anything during the eight long years of their misrule, it was to confirm Dr. Johnson’s observation that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. The soon-to-be-former president and vice president wrapped everything–from their initially illegitimate claim on the White House to undeclared wars, spying on Americans and even torture–in a red-white-and-blue flag of convenience. Borrowing more heavily from Joe McCarthy than Thomas Paine, Bush/Cheney gave a bad name not just to America but the to honorable inclination of Americans to express pride in their country.
Now it falls to Barack Obama to confirm the less commonly quoted but no less true adage of a World War II hero named George McGovern: “The highest patriotism is…a love of one’s country deep enough to call [it] to a higher standard.” Obama’s challenge is neither romantic nor rhetorical. It is a practical responsibility, and the extent to which he accomplishes it will determine the success of his presidency and of the process of American renewal that begins with his inauguration.
How should Obama–a man whose reluctance to play the flag-pin game drew a campaign season inquisition by the media–approach the matter of patriotism? Not by avoiding it, and not by falling back on cheap symbolism. As Obama the candidate observed last year, “When we argue about patriotism, we are arguing about who we are as a country, and more importantly, who we should be.” With that in mind, Obama the president must make it his mission to give voice to a patriotism dramatically more enlightened and inspiring than that preached by his predecessor.
For one thing, he can extend the definition of patriotism to include not just civic virtues but economic rights. It is a given that if Obama takes the oath he swears on January 20 seriously, he will restore executive branch respect for the system of checks and balances; he’ll renounce torture; he’ll restore the rule of law. But if there is hope for turning the American experiment in a more responsible and sustainable direction, the process must begin with a new understanding of patriotism that includes, finally, guaranteed healthcare for all, access to a good education and a fair distribution of this nation’s resources.
Obama has already sketched the soft outlines of a liberal patriotism, with its respect for dissent and reverence for equal opportunity, which takes on new meaning when expressed by the nation’s first African-American president. In one of the most important, if underreported, speeches of the campaign, he told a Missouri crowd, “I remember, when living for four years in Indonesia as a child, listening to my mother reading me the first lines of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ I remember her explaining how this declaration applied to every American, black and white and brown alike; how those words, and words of the United States Constitution, protected us from the injustices that we witnessed other people suffering during those years abroad. That’s my idea of America.”
As president, Obama has the position and the pulpit that will allow him to help us embrace a deeper, richer, more progressive patriotism. This, far more than any program, is where presidents define not just the transitory debates of their day but a fundamental understanding of America. Conservatives know this, and it is why they devote so much time to challenging the patriotism of all who stand to their left. Great progressives have known it as well. Franklin Roosevelt did not place his imprint on America with mere programs; he used every available means–from inaugural addresses to Thanksgiving proclamations–to foster a patriotism that included not just civil rights but economic rights. “There is, I fear, too great a tendency to give to patriotism merely an interest in making our country unconquerable in war, a feeling that our chief aim is to see that our army and our navy are sufficient for our protection. That is but a part of our patriotic duty,” he declared on a distant Armistice (Veterans) Day. “Our country is in a sense continually at war against the ramparts of liberty, equality and justice on which our Republic is founded. Surging constantly are the evil forces of greed, of materialism, of selfishness, headed by those who cynically deny that there is any prosperity that cannot be expressed in dollars and cents, or happiness except in bank balances.”
It falls to Barack Obama to tip the balance once more. Recent Democratic presidents have fallen short in this work–Jimmy Carter offered too much malaise and too little inspiration; Bill Clinton was too much of a tinkering technocrat to think big. John Kennedy was better at it, but his truncated presidency was always more about traveling hopefully than arriving. So FDR remains the touchstone. But he is no more than that. From Roosevelt we learn that it is possible for a president to speak seriously of grafting an economic bill of rights onto the founding documents of the Republic. But even if the current economic crisis recalls the mess Roosevelt inherited in 1932, these are different times, and America is a different country. Obama will have to find his own language of American renewal. This new president does not need to borrow words from his predecessor, but he should borrow FDR’s determination to take one word–patriotism–and give it a definition as visionary, and as progressive, as this moment, with all its peril and potential, demands.