So who's a real American now?
With his decisive triumph over Senator John McCain, Senate Barack Obama made obvious history: he is the first black (or biracial) man to win the presidency. But the meaning of his victory--in which Obama splashed blue across previously red states--extends far beyond its racial significance. Obama, a former community organizer and law professor, won the White House as one of the most progressive (or liberal) nominees in the Democratic Party's recent history. Mounting one of the best run presidential bids in decades, Obama tied his support for progressive positions (taxing the wealthy to pay for tax cuts for working Americans, addressing global warming, expanding affordable health insurance, withdrawing troops from Iraq) to calls for cleaning up Washington and for crafting a new type of politics. Charismatic, steady, and confident, he melded substance and style into a winning mix that could be summed up in simple and basic terms: hope and change.
After nearly eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, Obama was the non-Bush: intelligent, curious, thoughtful, deliberate, and competent. His personal narrative--he was the product of an unconventional family and worked his way into the nation's governing class--fueled his campaign narrative. His story was the American Dream v2.0. He was change, at least at skin level. But he also championed the end of Bushism. He had opposed the Iraq war. He had opposed Bush's tax cuts for the rich. He was no advocate of let-'er-rip, free market capitalism or American unilateralism. In policy terms, Obama represents a serious course correction.
And more. In the general election campaign, McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, turned the fight for the presidency into a culture clash. They accused Obama of being a socialist. They assailed him for having associated with William Ayers, a former, bomb-throwing Weather Underground radical,who has since become an education expert. Palin indirectly referred to Obama's relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who once preached fiery sermons denouncing the United States government for certain policies. On the campaign trail, Palin suggested there were "real" parts of America and fake parts. At campaign events, she promoted a combative, black-helicopter version of conservatism: if you're for government expansion, you're against freedom. During her one debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, she hinted that if her opponents won the White House there might come a day when kids would ask their grandparents what it had been like to live in a free country. At McCain-Palin rallies, supporters shouted out, "Communist!" and "terrorist!" and "Muslim!" when the Republican candidates referred to Obama. And McCain and Palin hurled the standard charges at Obama: he will raise your taxes and he is weak on national security.
Put it all together and the message was clear: there are two types of Americans. Those who are true Americans--who love their nation and cherish freedom--and those who are not. The other Americans do not put their country first; they blame it first. The other Americans do not believe in opportunity; they want to take what you have and give it to someone else. The other Americans do not care about Joe the Plumber; they are out-of-touch elitists who look down on (and laugh at) hard-working, church-going folks. The other Americans do not get the idea of America. They are not patriots. And it just so happens that the other America is full of blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians, and non-Christians.
McCain, Palin and their compatriots did what they could to depict Obama as the rebel chief of this other un-American America. (Hillary Clinton helped set up their effort during the primaries by beating the Ayers drum.) Remember the stories of Obama's supposed refusal to wear a flag pin or place his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance? The emails about Obama being a secret Muslim? The goal was to delegitimize Obama, as well as the Americans who were moved by his biography, his rhetoric, and his ideas. It was back to the 1960s--drawing a harsh line between the squares (the real Americans) and the freaks (those redistribution-loving, terrorist-coddling faux Americans).
It didn't work.