Barack Obama, liberal nationalist

By GIL TROY, The Jerusalem Post, January 22, 2009, OPINION; Pg. 15

HIGHLIGHT: It is significant that the most popular figure in the world today – whose middle name is Hussein – has endorsed Zionism so passionately.

Inauguration Day 2009 in Washington was grueling but inspiring. The minus eight degree cold was bone-chilling. The crowd of 2 million plus was frequently suffocating. The 20,000-officer security cordon was smothering. Yet people endured the discomfort good-naturedly. Neither cold nor crowds nor mile-long detours from blocks of blocked off streets would deter Barack Obama’s
faithful from celebrating his historic ascent.

Fueled particularly by Washington’s African-Americans, who came out in droves, Obamania gripped America’s grand but all too frequently cynical capital city. The outer lane of K Street, infamous for its slick lobbyists, became a shouk with hawkers selling cheap knickknacks emblazoned with messianic sentiments: “Yes We Did” on a bumper sticker; “Never Give Up on Your Dreams” on a commemorative booklet; “The Healing Process Has Begun” on a banner; “A Legacy of Hope” featuring beatific images of Obama
and Martin Luther King on a poster; and “Thank You Jesus, We Never Would Have Made It Without You” on a T-shirt. One Moroccan immigrant kept saying, “Only in America, only in America,” as he watched the self-described skinny kid with a funny name become president amid such a worshipful crowd.

Obama seemed sobered by America’s unrealistic expectations despite such crushing challenges. While his inauguration was moving, his address was muted. Now, Obama is such a master speechmaker that, as with Babe Ruth swinging a bat, anything less than a game-winning homer disappoints. Still, he seemed determined to manage Americans’ expectations, warning that America’s problems could not be solved simply by shouting “Yes We Can.”

Obama understands that the growing cult of personality surrounding him is a great asset, giving him a mandate to succeed. But he also knows that hope is like a balloon, if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting and elevating, but if overblown, it pops. The frenzied hopes his election triggered could sour.

Shrewdly, pragmatically, constructively, Obama wants to channel this energy into a badly needed sense of communal renewal. His campaign slogan was “Yes We Can,” not “Yes I Can.” He is continuing the initiative he began with his lyrical, extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, trying to articulate a vision of liberal American nationalism that works for the 21st century. Obama’s repudiation in 2004 of the “red America” versus “blue America” division, his inaugural celebration of “our patchwork heritage” as a “strength not a weakness,” seeks to forge a new nationalist center that heals America’s wounds and revives a sense of community.

BARACK OBAMA is a great nationalist. He understands that while nationalism can be ugly and destructive, it can also be a force for good. Nationalism is community writ large; it can pull individuals out of their selfish orbits, launching them into a universe of good works and great achievements. In his inaugural address, trying to solve the decades-long debate about the size of government, Obama reframed the question, saying, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

He then articulated an activist nationalist vision that empowered the people, saying, “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

As a liberal nationalist, appreciating liberal democracies’ great accomplishments, Obama has also championed Zionism eloquently. In an important, all-too- neglected interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg during the campaign, Obama explained that he learned about Zionism from a Jewish camp counselor. As a rootless child searching for his own anchors, Obama identified with the Jewish yearning to return home after being uprooted, especially after the Holocaust.

“My starting point when I think about the Middle East,” Obama said, “is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

This heartfelt statement goes far beyond the usual politician’s campaign pieties. Sadly, few Jewish students – or their parents – these days could explain Zionism as powerfully or eloquently – wouldn’t it be great if we all tried to match him.

OBAMA’S INAUGURATION, then, also gives the Jewish people a great and timely gift. Just as his message of liberal American nationalism should resonate even when he inevitably bogs down in the controversies of governing, his message affirming Zionism should be broadcast broadly, no matter what Middle East policies he pursues. Especially after the Gaza war, with Zionism and Israel again embattled, it is significant that the most popular figure in the world today – whose middle name is Hussein – has endorsed Zionism so passionately.

We should use Obama words to repudiate the forces of darkness who try to transform Hamas terrorists into democratic freedom fighters while not only criticizing Israel’s actions but delegitimizing the state and Jewish nationalism. And during this hopeful moment, when the Obama presidency has only happy tomorrows ahead and no embarrassing yesterdays – yet – we should all join in hoping that this extraordinary politician can live up to the best of his rhetoric and the heady aspirations people are projecting on him, in the streets of Washington and throughout the world.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.