Sen. Barack Obama is wearing his American flag lapel pin again, most appropriately during his speech this week in Missouri on patriotism. His critics may call that a flip-flop. I call it a sign that he's learning.
As recently as the debate before the Pennsylvania primary, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee gave eloquent reasons why he didn't think a flag pin was as important as the patriotic beliefs he held in his heart. But flag-pin lovers vote too.
It's too bad so many voters invest so much in symbols, but that's a reality of politics and human nature. Polls show a small but not insignificant slice of voters continue to question Obama's patriotism, especially in white working-class areas.
Obama, like any other political candidate, has to address the unspoken anxieties of middle America, including anxieties they might have about him. His support during the primaries tended to come from those who were college-educated, under age 55 and earned more than $50,000 annually.
And they don't all have a lot of time or inclination to spend analyzing issues and biographies, no matter how much I, as a media worker, wish they did. Voters are more likely to look for signs and symbols that indicate the candidate, if elected, will do the right thing once he or she is behind closed doors.
That's why values like patriotism matter.
Ever since the late 1960s, when conservatives came up with jibes like "limousine liberals," Democrats have wrestled with a paradox, a growing divide between their presidential candidates and the working-class voters that their policies are intended to help. If ever there were a year well-suited for a Democratic comeback, this is it. Polls show Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is having trouble holding on to evangelicals and other religious voters who supported Republicans overwhelmingly in recent decades. Disillusionment has set in among them about the Iraq War, congressional scandals and global warming. They are also jittery about gas prices and the economy.
So I call it a sign of Obama's political education that he launched into a week of speeches in swing states during Independence Day week with his flag pin gleaming on his lapel, yet also explaining in his own terms what that flag means to him.
Obama, the beneficiary of a rapid rise to prominence, is burdened by the fact that a lot of people don't yet know who he is and what he believes. Worse, he has been dogged by Internet-fueled smears, including false rumors that he will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance, place his hand over his heart during the national anthem or wear an American flag pin on his lapel.
When Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., sparked a firestorm of controversy, Obama responded with a stirring speech that called for a new dialogue on race in America. In similar fashion, his speech on patriotism in Independence, Mo., tried to get in front of the discussion and broaden it into one that touched on widely held American values.
He quoted Mark Twain, a proud Missourian, who wrote, "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." While we always hope our leaders and government will "stand up for our ideals," Obama added, when they don't, "then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expression of patriotism."
A century ago the satirist Ambrose Bierce defined a conservative as "a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." Of course, he was being sarcastic, describing each side in terms used by its opponents. Patriotic conservatives prefer to think of themselves as preserving what's good about America, while patriotic liberals aspire to make America better.
The larger message of Obama's outreach is that neither political side has a monopoly on patriotism. We only have different ways of expressing it. Once we get past arguing over who believes most in the American dream, we can have a serious debate about how to make that dream work for everybody.