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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-21-09

Inauguration Day, 2009 in Washington, DC was grueling but inspiring. The minus 8 degree cold was bone-chilling. The crowd of two million plus was frequently suffocating. The 20,000-officer security cordon was smothering. Yet people endured the discomfort good-naturedly. Neither cold nor crowds nor mile-long detours from blocks of blocked off streets would deter Obama’s faithful from celebrating his historic ascent.

Fueled particularly by Washington, DC’s African-Americans, who came out in droves, Obamania gripped America’s grand but all too frequently cynical capital city. The outer lane of “K” Street, infamous for its slick lobbyists, became a bazaar with hawkers selling cheap knickknacks emblazoned with messianic sentiments: “Yes We Did” on a bumper sticker; “Never Give Up on Your Dreams,” on a commemorative booklet”; “The Healing Process Has Begun” on a banner; “A Legacy of Hope” featuring beatific images of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King on a poster; and “Thank You Jesus, We Never Would Have Made It Without You” on a T-shirt. One Moroccan immigrant kept saying, “Only in America, only in America,” as he watched the self-described skinny kid with a funny name become president amid such a worshipful crowd.

At the inauguration, Obama seemed sobered by America’s unrealistic expectations despite such crushing challenges. While Obama’s inauguration was moving, his address was muted. Now, Obama is such a master speechmaker that, as with Babe Ruth swinging a bat, anything less than a game-winning homer disappoints. Still, Obama seemed determined to manage Americans’ expectations, warning that America’s problems could not be solved simply by sloganeering.

Obama understands that the growing cult of personality surrounding him is a great asset, giving him a mandate to succeed. But he also knows that hope is like a balloon, if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting, and elevating; but if overblown, it pops. The frenzied hopes his election triggered could sour.

Shrewdly, pragmatically, constructively, Obama wants to channel this energy into a badly needed sense of communal renewal. His campaign slogan was “Yes We Can,” not “Yes I Can.” He is continuing the initiative he began with his lyrical, extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, trying to articulate a vision of liberal American nationalism that works for the 21st century. Obama’s repudiation in 2004 of the “red America” versus “blue America” division, his inaugural celebration of “our patchwork heritage” as a “strength not a weakness,” seeks to forge a new nationalist center that heals America’s wounds, and revives a sense of community.

Barack Obama is a great nationalist. He understands that while nationalism can be ugly and destructive, it can also be a force for good. Nationalism is community writ large; it can pull individuals out of their selfish orbits, launching them into a universe of good works and great achievements. In his inaugural address, trying to solve the decades-long debate about the size of government, Obama reframed the question, saying, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” He then articulated an activist nationalist vision that empowered the people, saying “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

Similarly, regarding foreign policy, Obama tried to resolve the fight between realists emphasizing America’s needs and idealists hoping to spread democracy and other American ideals worldwide. Thanks to the backlash against George W. Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist school is ascendant – frequently displaying a strong isolationist streak. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But minutes into the job, Obama already acknowledged that the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window. Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal. And while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of earth.” For all those reasons, Obama declared when inaugurated: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

In launching his administration, Obama has demonstrated that he just might govern as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud. And during this hopeful moment, when the Obama presidency has only happy tomorrows ahead and no embarrassing yesterdays – yet – we should all join in hoping that this extraordinary politician can live up to the best of his rhetoric and the heady aspirations people are projecting on him, in the streets of Washington, and throughout the world.

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Newsday, July 6, 2008
| Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University. His new book is “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.”     
The Democrats’ dilemma, namely how to blast President George W. Bush without being accused of bashing
Leading From the Center

Leading From the Center

America, prompted Sen. Barack Obama to affirm his patriotism in Independence, Mo., last week. Obama

correctly insisted that “no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism,” and patriots sometimes have a duty to dissent. But he avoided connecting patriotism to the idea of American nationalism, which is the very concept explaining why we need countries at all.

Discussions about patriotism, meaning love of country, frequently degenerate into absurd competitions to prove who loves his country more, or accusations that one candidate does not love the country enough. We end up focusing on whether candidates wear lapel pins, place their hands on their chests when singing the national anthem, or sing it on key. The conversation about nationalism goes deeper, about the very reason for organizing smaller communities into larger countries and into the vision of just what kind of nation we want to be.

Unfortunately, the great crimes of the 20th century made nationalism a dirty word to many. Defined by disasters like Bosnia’s brutality and Nazism’s horrors, the concept became linked with parochialism, xenophobia, prejudice, extremism, militarism and mass murder. It became trendy to celebrate the European Union as the “post-national” wave of the future. This ignores how Germanic Germans remain, how French the French still are. In fact, nationalism remains the world’s central organizing principle, with 192 nation-states in the United Nations.

Nationalism has unleashed great cruelty. But it has fueled many modern miracles, including America’s great liberal democratic experiment. Without appeals to the national conscience, without a strong sense of a national purpose, Americans might not have stayed united, settled the West, won world wars, explored space, mass-produced prosperity, spread essential rights or created the Internet, which, remember, was invented as a tool for national defense. 

When Abraham Lincoln invoked “the mystic chords of memory,” he reminded Americans of the appealing ideals that united them as one nation. When Ronald Reagan saluted John Winthrop‘s “shining city upon the hill,” he, too, summoned a mythic national past to push the country toward a better future. At its best, nationalism gets people dreaming and working together and behaving better than they might if they were just thinking selfishly or too locally.

Every day, Americans fulfill national ideals, living, and often quoting, the enduring phrases from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Americans enjoy a deep commitment to human life, unprecedented amounts of liberty and massive opportunities for the pursuit of happiness.

Thomas Jefferson‘s five-word affirmation in the Declaration of Independence – that all men are created equal – has become impressively more inclusive over time. Since 1776, the phrase has empowered African-Americans, women, the poor and immigrants, inviting them to enjoy more and more of America’s goodies.

Nationalism focuses on “we the people,” not just the “I”; nationalism is about each nation’s romance with the land and myths about the past. Mining group pride and common goals can elevate not denigrate, include not exclude.

Lincoln’s cautious but egalitarian nationalism helped Northerners evolve beyond their initial racism to make the fight for union a fight against black slavery. Theodore Roosevelt‘s romantic, upbeat patriotism helped industrializing Americans create a communal counterbalance to business power and sing a collective song of American altruism. Franklin Roosevelt‘s can-do, optimistic communalism reassured and mobilized Americans during the dark days of the Depression, then inspired Americans to share their Four Freedoms with the rest of the world.

The American revolutionaries we honor on July 4 were reluctant revolutionaries – they did not want to reject England, the mother country. But, by defending themselves, they became ardent nationalists. On this 232nd anniversary of their great leap of faith, we can demonstrate our patriotism and champion its connection to our pride in our nationalism. Patriotism is about “my country, right or wrong”; nationalism about how my country goes about righting wrongs and forging a common good.

In this presidential campaign, we should seek a worthy successor to our tradition of inspirational nationalists. Let’s make this presidential campaign about competing centrist visions for modern American nationalism – acknowledging its strengths and potential to do good in the world – rather than engaging in a petty debate maligning either candidate’s patriotism.

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JPost, July 6, 2008

Barack Obama gave another eloquent, thoughtful, thought-provoking speech this week, this time Obama and his wife Michelle,...about patriotism in Independence, Missouri. Obama knew that the July 4th holiday gave him an opportunity to undo some of the damage that Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign had done to him.

But rather than being defensive, trying to prove his loyalty to America or refuting the claim that he was not-unpatriotic, Obama did what he did best. He spoke powerfully about patriotism – love of country – in a broad expansive way.

He insisted that “no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism” – a sharp elbow aimed at critics – and then explained that patriots sometimes have a duty to dissent.

But while using the words “patriotism” and “nation” repeatedly, Obama avoided using the word “nationalism.” Nationalism is a word that sophisticates hate, as they idealize the European Union’s “post-nationalism” – forgetting how potent nationalism remains in Europe. Nationalism in popular culture is too frequently connected to fanatics who love their country so much they hate fellow citizens who disagree with them.

But both Zionists and American patriots know that nationalism, like religion, can be a force for good – or for ill. Nationalism distorted and perverted ended up degenerating into Nazism. Nationalism constructively channeled created the United States of America 232 years ago, and the State of Israel more recently.

By avoiding the term, was Obama revealing his identity as part of the University of Chicago-Harvard elite who look down their noses at the little people who love their country? Or was he simply being a smart politician and using the popular term “patriotism” rather than the more complicated term “nationalism”?

To those who see Obama as an Ivy League elitist who will be too Jimmy Carteresque, this speech can become one more link in their chain of evidence. But the speech also confirmed the impressions of those who see Obama as a smart, savvy, and eloquent visionary. This is the Obama enigma – and we hope that the campaign, with its many tests, will prove clarifying.

Photo: Obama and his wife Michelle, left, cheer as they watch an Independence Day parade in Butte, Mont., Friday. AP

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