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How History Shaped Barack Obama’s View of National Identity

Barack Obama campaigning in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 5. Credit: Flickr/Obama for America.

Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or a slave ship; whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande -- we are one people. We need one another. Our patriotism is not rooted in ethnicity, but in a shared belief of the enduring and permanent promise of this country. 

-- President Barack Obama April 2011
Commencement address at Miami Dade College

Throughout his political career, President Barack Obama has spoken vigorously and repeatedly about his vision of a civic national identity that will lead to a more inclusive and united nation, and on his belief that the common good must be pursued -- that our policies cannot focus solely on maximizing individual gain.

Obama’s core communitarian value of “One American Family” stands in contrast to the conservative concepts of hyper-individualism, laissez faire capitalism, Ayn Rand’s extreme libertarianism, and social Darwinism. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has labeled Obama’s ideas as “foreign,” and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other conservatives have said that Obama doesn’t understand America.

In his new book Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of our National Identity (Potomac Books), historian Ian Reifowitz traces the origins of Obama’s vision of an America where all citizens recognize a shared history and a shared fate, and actively participate together in one great American enterprise. Dr. Reifowitz examines closely Obama’s writing and public statements, including his view of American history that includes -- one which covers both the darkest moments as well as the greatest triumphs and emphasizes the progress toward the equality proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. The book also discusses the contrasting ideas of exclusionism, identity politics and other views that run counter to Obama’s themes of American community and inclusion.

Dr. Reifowitz’s book has been praised for its extensive research and careful exploration of President Obama’s writings and public statements. Historian Allan J. Lichtman, author of White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, wrote: “In this innovative, tightly reasoned, and concise work, Ian Reifowitz shows that Barack Obama’s contributions to strengthening America’s understanding of itself as an inclusive society transcend his status as the nation’s first African American president. Reifowitz brings a bracing dose of optimistic vision to today’s usually dreary and polarized political debates.” The book has also sparked discussion and some barbs from critics on the right.

Dr. Reifowitz is an associate professor of historical studies at SUNY Empire State College. In recent years, he has focused on the study of pluralism, race and ethnicity, and national identity in the contemporary United States.

He first book was Imagining an Austrian Nation: Joseph Samuel Bloch and the Search for a Multiethnic Austrian Identity (2003), and he has published numerous articles in mainstream and academic periodicals. He is the recipient of the Susan H. Turben Award for Excellence in Scholarship from the Empire State College Foundation.

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How do you see President Obama’s vision of our national identity that you describe in your book?

He is trying to transform our national identity and, at the same time, have it live up to our true values -- values laid out in the Declaration of Independence built around the idea of equality, something that we haven’t always lived up to.

It’s a familiar narrative but one that hasn’t been as emphasized over time as Obama would like it to be so he’s focused on doing that. Certainly, he’s not the first person to talk about progress over time. He talked about spreading equality to all of those in our society -- those who had been excluded previously by law through the 1960s, and in some cases to the present day, based on their race or gender or sexual orientation or whatever.

But he has taken these values and raised them to a new level. He has spoken about national identity and the importance of helping all people feel that they’re included in the American national community -- to a degree that I haven’t seen from any previous president. We see this in his earliest writings with the idea of encouraging people across ethnic lines to develop strong ties with one another on the basis of being American. It’s one thing just to say it, but it’s another to say it over and over again. That’s what politicians do. They spread their ideas by saying them over and over again in appealing ways.

Rather than saying every once in a while “yes, we’re all Americans,” it’s a central theme of his. If you look at his speeches, one phrase that crops up over and over again is “We’re one American family.” It says several things. It’s a counter to the hyperindividualist viewpoint that you see from economic conservatives -- those influenced by Ayn Rand [like Paul Ryan]. So there’s a communitarian idea versus individualism.

And another piece that comes out of [Obama’s] experience in the 1980s and 1990s with multiculturalism is that he [seeks] a path beyond the identity politics and the extremes of radical forms of multiculturalism that were branches within the broader multicultural movement. Obama is trying to take the best of the broader multicultural movement with its focus on inclusion and a broader diversity, but he’s avoiding the identity politics that rejected any common American national identity. He’s also coming from a more traditionalist perspective with a unified national identity but recognizes that it historically lacked inclusion.

He’s trying to take the strengths of each of these two poles in the debate that was raging in the culture wars of the 1990s and to put them together into something that fits. Again, he’s a political thinker and not an academician, and he didn’t develop these ideas on his own. I think he was influenced by the ideas coming out of the center-left with people like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writing about the disuniting of America, Michael Lind, Gary Nash on the national history standards, David Hollinger on post-ethnic America, and Todd Gitlin and Richard Rorty. They were all trying to come up with a center-left civic nationalism or liberal nationalism with an emphasis on the national unity and identity coming from that had come to be associated with the traditional right but also the inclusion and respect for diversity and pluralism coming from the left and multiculturalism. Obama’s take paralleled theirs, was influenced by them and he obviously believed in the importance of diversity and pluralism, but he recoiled against identity politics and, from his own perspective, from the black nationalism he had flirted with in his earlier days.

You note various waves of anti-immigrant movements through our history and describe how President Obama views this troubled past.

There’s been a debate over time about who is an American. There’s the nativist strain and the inclusive strain. The people who are allowed to be included in the American identity started out fairly limited, although any level of democracy in 1776 or 1789 was good compared to the rest of the world. And it grew over time to include Catholics, Eastern Europeans, and slowly to nonwhites. Since the 1960s, at least, the law has been on the side of inclusion although the gay rights issue is taking another couple of generations.

But we’ve always had and still have the nativist strain. When Obama talks about “we are one family,” he is being aspirational. As a politician, he recognizes that it’s far more effective to say “we include everybody,” rather than saying “we ought to include everybody,” which is a hectoring statement. It’s easy to be dismissive and say you can’t talk about America in those terms because we certainly aren’t there. But he’s trying to get us there.

You detail recent evidence of this nativist sentiment as Republicans like Mitt Romney label Obama’s idea as foreign and “the other,“ and Sarah Palin’s talks about “real Americans,” and those views have been called veiled racism.

Right. I can’t tell you what’s in Mitt Romney’s mind or heart, but it certainly reflects a recognition that there’s enough of that sentiment out there that he can win votes by talking that way. And since the book has come out, there has been even more of that rhetoric. We had almost what seemed to be an an organized campaign in July where Mitt Romney talked about Obama’s ideas as foreign. Romney had John Sununu, a top surrogate, talk about how Obama needs to learn how to be an American. They said they were talking about his ideas and policies.

Then the attacks on welfare were built around a direct lie about Obama’s welfare policies. They claimed he tried to weaken welfare standards, but he merely made it possible for governors to apply for waivers, but only on the condition that they show that the changes proposed under the waivers will lead to an increase in the percentage of people on welfare who are working. That’s the exact opposite of weakening welfare. But that’s all based on racial dog whistle words.

There’s not much rhetoric from the right on all Americans working for the common good and a lot how some Americans are more “real” than others.

Yes. It’s not that they can’t criticize Obama or his policies, but if you must criticize, then let’s look at how. Look at John McCain in 2008 who did a very good job of tamping down that rhetoric when he saw it personally. He quashed the use of Reverand Wright’s extreme views because it would be too racially divisive. And at a campaign rally when an audience member said Obama was an Arab and not an American, McCain took the microphone and said, “No ma’am, that’s not true.” That’s a big deal. Then, after Gabby Giffords was shot (in January 2011] in Tucson, McCain wrote that’s it’s one thing to criticize Obama but we shouldn’t try to question whether he’s American or not. That’s not acceptable.

And another Republican, Jon Huntsman, in his campaign for president, said “this is not about whether the president is a better American than I. It’s about our ideas.”

You can criticize Obama’s ideas without calling him foreign. Calling him foreign means you’re trying to gin up division and play on white anxiety rather than deal with the content of his ideas.

You discuss a white anxiety and how some feel their rights imperiled. Can you talk about your sense of that?

I have a long quotation in the book from Pat Buchanan to the effect that the major victims of the past fifty years are white Christians -- that they’ve had their country taken from them. I don’t think that’s true, but there is feeling of anxiety about greater diversity and cultural standards changing with more tolerance of difference and alternative viewpoints. Certainly with homosexuality, there’s been a sea change. Recent immigration means you have more people from non-European backgrounds. You have different languages spoken and people fifty years ago almost never heard any language other than English being spoken. People get worked up about having to press one to speak English when they call customer service.

These things relate to cultural anxiety and there is fear about change.

You write about how history has shaped President Obama, and how his vision is in the vein of Lincoln and MLK and others in terms of a special form of American nationalism.

There is a long tradition of progressivism that consciously wraps the flag and the Declaration of Indepedence around itself. All men are created equal. [Abolitionist and former slave] Frederick Douglass said the same thing in his speeches, as did an earlier African American, David Walker, who asked of whites: “Don’t you remember what you wrote in the Declaration of Independence?”

All of these reformers up to today, including Obama, say we want equality, we want change, and we want not to throw out our traditional values but to stop ignoring them and instead to live up to them. They pushed for change in a pro-American way by saying we are more American than those who are against equality. The real American position is the equality position, the liberation position, the reform position. That’s a very powerful thing.

How has Obama’s knowledge of history shaped his vision of national identity?

He does not embrace a triumphalist version of history but talks about our progress on race and equality. He has said that we have to recognize that some things have improved because not to do so is to ignore the successes we’ve won. But he also has said that just because things are better, they’re not good enough. That’s not triumphalist, but it’s not America the incurable.

History has influenced him in many different ways. He can recognize that America can be both flawed and great at the same time. It doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good. He recognizes that we’ve been both flawed and great. I think that influences his whole approach to politics and to understanding other countries, and it gives him a hopeful realism in his dealings.

He was influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr's idea that nobody is perfect, that perfection is unattainable and, if you look for perfection, you’ll be disappointed. Obama [embraces] that understanding as he looks forward.

In his writing and speeches, including his children’s book on American history [Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters], Obama stresses events such as the Revolution, the preservation of the Union in the Civil War, the struggle for women’s suffrage, the triumph over fascism in World War II, and the civil rights movement.

Yes -- and there are some events that wouldn’t be as stressed in a triumphalist version of history. In the discussion over the Texas and Tennessee [American history] textbooks, for example, the Tea Party folks said there was too much on slavery and denigration of the Founding Fathers. Obama would laugh at that. You’re not denigrating them because you don’t expect them to be perfect.

Obama once rattled off a list of place names as an easy way of talking about history, a use of synecdoche or using the part to talk about the whole. He talked about Lexington, Concord, Seneca Falls, Normandy, Selma and Montgomery. Think about this list. It has the battles but it also has the first women’s rights convention and the civil rights place names with all of these events being of equal importance. That’s a very different understanding of American history than was taught fifty or sixty years ago.

Obama’s children’s book is terrific. Think about a children’s book with a page on Sitting Bull crying and talking about broken promises, but that also talks about triumphant moments as well without being triumphalist. You have all the elements here. That children’s book gave you in a nutshell Obama’s narrative in an impressive way.

You state that for President Obama, ideas such as hyperindividualism, Ayn Rand’s philosophy, social Darwinism, and laissez faire capitalism are not only unpatriotic but they’re un-American. Yet many, especially on the right, embrace those ideas.

Obama is saying we have two strains of thought running back to the Revolution. One is rugged individualism and the other is a strong communitarian impulse. In fact, [columnist] E.J. Dionne writes about academic ideas on history in a popular way and he recently wrote a book about America’s divided heart. He traces those two strains through history and, as I read it, I thought: that’s exactly what Obama’s been doing in his speeches. He recognizes the rugged individualism in our history, but argues that if that’s the only strain we act on, it will lead to disaster. When we swung too far in that direction in the '20s, the extreme laissez-faire capitalism of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover gave us the Depression. And in the post-1980s period you had extreme de-regulation of the economy and another swing in that direction.

Obama is saying we must balance between the rugged individualism and the communitarian strains. The communitarian strain has led to tremendous accomplishments, not just in fighting wars but building a society. The New Deal built social and job programs that kept us from worse collapse than we had with the Depression. And there are the later accomplishments with Medicare, Medicaid, infrastructure improvement, and research, and all these things come out of that communitarian strain.

And that ties into Obama’s sense that empathy for others will lead to a more united and perhaps happier nation.

For him, the idea of empathy is centered on putting yourself in the shoes of someone different from you. Of course, Americans have so much difference in terms of culture, ancestry and other ways, if we didn’t have a way to empathize with people who are different, we couldn’t have any national identity. In fact, in any multiethnic society, you can’t have a national identity unless you can see beyond your own background. A society where people don’t have empathy for people who are different from themselves is a society that will be rife with identity politics of tribalism and racial politics. We know of extreme examples of that. It’s not an easy thing for a multiethnic society to stay together and for people to feel as one people, and empathy is central to that.

Obama’s ideas on unity and inclusion may seem only idealistic or naïve in times of economic crisis and scarcity. You write of MLK and others on economic issues, and how we need to address those issues for all Americans. Where does Obama fit in terms of economic ideas?

Once you get into economic philosophy, Obama is a fairly traditional twentieth-century liberal in that he wants to have a capitalist system with significant reform elements. He’s not as radical on economics as Martin Luther King. You can see some of King’s ideas in the McGovern campaign of 1972, but the Democratic Party has moved back from that. King talked about a guaranteed national income for the poor -- as did Richard Nixon, by the way -- but clearly that’s not where Obama is coming from. Obama is in the middle of where American liberalism is today on economic issues, but his view relates to the national unity idea of “we” rather than “I.”

In his national unity speech at the convention, Obama talked about citizenship and contrasted it with the views of Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate. Obama said we’re about citizenship in terms of being an American, and he said that citizenship means were connected to every other American who is alive now and those who are gone and those who are yet to come. That’s where national identity comes in. You’re part of a community of people, even those you don’t know. This goes back to the sociological idea of imagined communities and that you’re part of a community even though you only have an imaginary relationship with the people who are part of it, and there are responsibilities and rights.

Obama went on to talk about his idea of freedom. “A freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism is unworthy of our founding ideas and those who died in their defense.” That is a political statement, but it’s also a philosophical statement. It’s not just about freedom but it’s also about obligations to others, commitment to one another, to country, to your fellow Americans. He also talked about charity and patriotism, and he said America is not about what can be done for us, but it’s about what can be done by us together in the hard but necessary work of self government. There’s a little bit of JFK when he said: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It’s also that working together in government is what we are about.

Now contrast that to Paul Ryan. In his acceptance speech, he defined his American ideal: “It’s an American journey where I think for myself, decide for myself, find happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American dream. That’s freedom.” There’s a reason his American dream has the word self in it three times. That’s Ayn Rand, and this idea of defining happiness for myself is almost straight out of Ayn Rand. For Ryan, America seems to be I can do what I want when I want to do it. It sounds like a five-year-old talking rather than a more adult understanding of what America is. That is a very powerful contrast.

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