2/22/08 Times (U.K.) 19
* Listen To The Rhetoric Of Barack Obama...
For most ordinary Americans, those not encumbered with an expensive
education or infected by prolonged exposure to cosmopolitan
heterodoxy, patriotism is a consequence of birth.
Their chests swell with pride every time they hear the national
anthem at sporting events. They fill up with understandable emotion
whenever they see a report on television about the tragic heroics of
some soldier or Marine who gave his life in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Foreigners don't have to like America - and they've certainly
exercised that freedom in the past few years. But most Americans can
distinguish between the transience of policy failure and the
permanence of the national ideal.
And surely even critics of the US could scarcely deny that there
have been real causes for American pride in the past 25 years: the
fall of the Berlin Wall; the victory in the first Gulf War in 1991;
the nation's unity in grief and resolve after September 11. Heck, I
suspect most Americans got a small buzz of patriotic pride this week
when they heard that one of their multimillion-dollar missiles had
shot a dead but dangerous satellite travelling at 17,000 miles per
hour out of the sky so that it fell harmlessly to Earth.
But not, apparently, Michelle Obama, wife of the man who is now the
putative Democratic candidate for US president, and at this point
favourite to succeed to that job. In what might be the most
revealing statement made by any political figure so far in this
campaign season, Mrs Obama caused a stir this week. She said that
the success of her husband Barack's campaign had marked the first
time in her adult life that she had felt pride in her country.
This, even by the astonishingly self-absorbed standards of
politicians and their families, is a remarkably narrow view of what
makes a country great. And though she later half-heartedly tried to
retract the remark it was a statement pregnant with meaning for the
presidential election campaign.
Now, to be fair to Mrs Obama, she would surely have a point if she
had said that it was a source of incomparable pride to her and all
African-Americans that in a country with a long and baleful history
of racial discrimination, one of their own was within serious range
of becoming president. All but the most irredeemably racist
Americans would surely agree with that.
But that was not what she said. She said this was the only time in
her adult life that she had felt pride in America.
It was instructive for two reasons. First, it reinforced the growing
sense of unease that even some Obama supporters have felt about the
increasingly messianic nature of the candidate's campaign. There's
always been a Second Coming quality about Mr Obama's rhetoric. The
claim that his electoral successes in places like Nebraska and
Wisconsin might transcend all that America has achieved in its
history can only add to that worry.
Secondly, and more importantly, I suspect it reveals much about what
the Obama family really thinks about the kind of nation that America
is. Mrs Obama is surely not alone in thinking not very much about
what America has been or done in the past quarter century or more.
In fact, it is a trope of the left wing of the Democratic party that
America has been a pretty wretched sort of place.
There is a caste of left-wing Americans who wish essentially and in
all honesty that their country was much more like France. They wish
it had much higher levels of taxation and government intervention,
that it had much higher levels of welfare, that it did not have such
a "militaristic" approach to foreign policy. Above all, that its
national goals were dictated, not by the dreadful halfwits who
inhabit godforsaken places like Kansas and Mississippi, but by the
counsels of the United Nations.
Though Mr Obama has done a good job, as all recent serious Democrats
have done, of emphasising his belief in American virtues, his record
and his programme suggest he is firmly in line with this wing of his
This, I think, not his inexperience in public office, is the
principal threat to Mr Obama's campaign. His increasingly desperate
opponent, Hillary Clinton, keeps hammering away that his message is
all talk and no substance - and she was joined this week by Mr
Obama's likely Republican opponent in the November general election,
But if you listen to Mr Obama's speeches, it is not the lack of
substance but the quality of it that ought to worry Americans. His
victory speech after his latest primary win in Wisconsin this week
was a case in point.
There was no shortage of proposals. He plans large increases in
government spending on health and education. He wants to tax the
rich more to pay for it. He is against companies using the
opportunities of free markets to restructure their operations in the
US. He is vehemently protectionist. He continues to insist, despite
the growing evidence that this left-wing nostrum would be lunacy,
that the US must pull its troops out of Iraq with the utmost
While he speaks of the need for Americans to move beyond
partisanship ("We are not blue states or red states, but the United
States" is a campaign meme), when you cut through the verbiage there
is nothing to suggest he believes anything that is seriously at odds
with the far Left of his party. If you think about it for a second,
it's not really an accident that he has been endorsed by the likes
of Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson.
Though he talks with great eloquence about the future, he sounds for
all the world like one of the long line of Democrats from George
McGovern to Walter Mondale to Michael Dukakis, who became history by
espousing policies and striking a rhetorical pose that was well out
of the mainstream of American politics.
America is certainly moving left in the post-George Bush era. The
long period of conservative ascendancy is clearly over, buried by a
Republican Party of recent years that has preached intolerance and
practised incompetence. That a new era in American politics is
beginning is not in doubt. But are Americans really ready to leap
all the way across in one go to embrace a European-style Left?