But there was still something missing. I noticed it during Obama’s response to a young man who remembered how the country had come together after Sept. 11 and lamented “the dangerously low levels of patriotism and pride in our country, the loss of faith in our elected officials.” Obama used this, understandably, to go after George W. Bush. “Cynicism has become the hot stock,” he said, “the growth industry during the Bush Administration.” He talked about the Administration’s mendacity, its incompetence during Hurricane Katrina, its lack of transparency. But he never returned to the question of patriotism. He never said, “But hey, look, we’re Americans. This is the greatest country on earth. We’ll rise to the occasion.”
This is a chronic disease among Democrats, who tend to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right. When Ronald Reagan touted “Morning in America” in the 1980s, Dick Gephardt famously countered that it was near midnight “and getting darker all the time.” This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature. Obama’s hopemongering is about as American as a message can get — although, in the end, it is mostly about our ability to transcend our imperfections rather than the effortless brilliance of our diversity, informality and freedom-propelled creativity.
Patriotism is, sadly, a crucial challenge for Obama now. His aides believe that the Wright controversy was more about anti-Americanism than it was about race. Michelle Obama’s unfortunate comment that the success of the campaign had made her proud of America “for the first time” in her adult life and the Senator’s own decision to stow his American-flag lapel pin — plus his Islamic-sounding name — have fed a scurrilous undercurrent of doubt about whether he is “American” enough.