Perhaps Barack Obama was being naïve or simply wanted to pre-empt the coming attacks on his character during the 2008 election when he said, “I am absolutely confident that during the general election that when I’m in a debate with John McCain, people are not going to be questioning my patriotism, they are going to be questioning how can you make people’s lives a little better.”
While the sentiment then candidate Obama expressed is a noble and optimistic, attacks on his patriotism inevitably came (some were rejected by Senator McCain, although similar attacks have not been rebuked by Mitt Romney) and they have continued even as he became the leader of the country and Commander-in-Chief of the military.
Attacks on patriotism as an extension of a politician’s character and values is now a staple in presidential politics. It is about “otherizing” your opponent in an effort to frame an election as “us” versus “them” with your opponent characterized as “not one of us.”
This line of attack didn’t begin with the President Obama and it won’t end with him. In 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was attacked by then vice-president George H.W. Bush for his veto while governor of Massachusetts of a bill mandating students say the Pledge of Allegiance in the state’s schools. Despite the fact that the details of the case were more complicated, the implication was made clear that he could not be trusted as a true patriot and by extension as president because he is not a supporter of one of our most cherished traditions.
When Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992, President George H. W. Bush and allies attacked Clinton’s character and patriotism for his failure to enter the draft and fight for his country in Vietnam and a trip to Moscow during his early twenties as a Rhodes Scholar.
Eight years later George W. Bush was attacked for the same reason ii avoiding combat in Vietnam and after landing a spot in the Texas Air National Guard. His challenger, Senator John Kerry was awarded medals for his service in Vietnam and yet in an ironic twist it was Kerry — the war hero — who was framed as the “French” or “foreign” candidate lacking patriotism. While many of the attacks in past election cycles were flexible with the facts, Kerry’s “swift boating” marked a tragic turning point in modern presidential history. This moment in time can and should be highlighted as the point where the traditional boundaries of character assassination crossed a threshold and became even more extreme and blatantly dishonest.
Attacks on patriotism have historically happened on both sides of the political aisle, but it is also important to note that this style of attack has gotten much worse and pervasive with the purpose of de-legitimatizing President Obama to the point where he is forced to release a long form birth certificate to quiet conspiracy theorists. At this point, it’s no longer about the president’s policies and isolated disagreements over the details. His patriotism is questioned and his ideology is portrayed as a desire to destroy the country from within. These unwarranted attacks that come from all sides also include an ugly racial component that cannot be ignored.
The debate over Obamacare is not simply a policy disagreement between the parties on the specifics, it is dishonestly described as a government takeover of health care that is aimed at making the United States more like Europe. The attacks frame Obama as attacking the core of American liberty and values.
Instead of Congress working together to reach a middle ground on how to achieve economic growth and recovery over the past three years, the president is accused of being a Kenyan anti-colonialist who wants to enslave the public. Right wingers has made a concerted effort to undermine the president and the country, all while calling him unpatriotic or an “apologist” to our international allies.
During the previous administration, attacking the very unpopular George W. Bush while on foreign soil was seen as beyond the pale. Today, similar attacks on President Obama are hardly ever criticized by Republicans who were vocal on the subject during the Bush years.
When the president made the critical decision to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan leading to the Al Qaeda leader’s death, Republicans struggled to praise their political opponent. Even seeking proper vengeance on behalf of the nation for the September 11th attacks didn’t stop the attacks on the president’s patriotism.
This is trend wholly unacceptable. Politics should not circumvent our patriotism and disagreement over policy should not ever lead to a debate over who loves the country more. What is good for America should be enough for both political parties.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @zerlinamaxwell