Barack Obama: American enough
His life epitomizes the American dream. Now he has to show that he's 'one of us.'
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Still, by presidential nominee standards, Obama is an exceedingly recent arrival on the national political scene. A consequence of that newness is that, prior to the Denver convention, most Americans hadn't yet developed a clear enough sense of him as a person – who he is, and what makes him tick. This, in combination with an unusual background that is vulnerable to misrepresentation and fear-mongering, has given some voters pause.Skip to next paragraph
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Obama isn't simply the first black nominee. He's also the first major presidential candidate with an African parent, the first with an Asian (step)parent, and the first to have lived and been schooled (for a few years) in a Muslim country. While such a biography is becoming less rare in the United States, in 2008 it remains beyond the personal experience of most Americans. For some, it will take still more getting used to – as Hillary Clinton's campaign strategist Mark Penn suggested in a Machiavellian memo with his crass "Save it for 2050" comment.
The challenge for Obama, then, lies in persuading enough middle-of-the-road voters that, as a fundamental matter of identity, he's "one of us," in the sense of being not just a great talent, but indeed an American partisan – and not an ultra-cosmopolitan "citizen of the world" whose perspective is more complicated than the unalloyed patriotism Americans expect from their president.
Obama should speak as concretely about his love of country as he has spoken about his faith, and go beyond acknowledging that only in America could he have gone from where he started to where he is now. And in discussing America's place in the world and the foreign policy he envisions, he should be emphatic that his allegiance to the national interest of the United States is nothing short of John F. Kennedy's or Ronald Reagan's.
In Denver and beyond, Obama must continue to give voters every opportunity to get to know him – his policy agenda, to be sure, but also a more complete picture of a life story with which they can connect. With her speech, Michelle Obama has given him a very good start.
For someone who rightly sees himself as quintessentially American, and whose life has epitomized the American dream, having to clear an extra hurdle of Americanness must strike Barack Obama as ironic – and more than a little unfair.
Fair or not, he has ten weeks to clear it.