Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Our Country

[The title of this post comes from Stephen Decatur’s toast: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!"]

Barack Obama has an unusual background. I might even go so far as to call it - if you’ll pardon the expression - exotic.

Barack Obama’s biological father was not an American citizen. Using Wikipedia, I checked United States Presidents back to Teddy Roosevelt and as far as I can tell none of them had a biological parent who was not a United States citizen. Only one of them - Woodrow Wilson - had a biological parent who was not born in the United States: Wilson’s mother was born in Carlisle to Scottish parents. By the time she met and married Wilson’s father she had emigrated to the United States and was a permanent resident and presumably a citizen.

Barack Obama’s mother’s second husband (Obama’s courtesy stepfather) was not an American citizen. Again, as far as I can tell no President in the 20th or 21st century has had a stepparent - legal or courtesy - who was not an American citizen.

Obama lived in a foreign country from the time he was 5 or 6 until he was 10. I would imagine more than a few United States Presidents spent time out of the country when they were young. Certainly if their parents were ambassadors or in the military they would have done so. In those cases, however, they were living in those countries as Americans: both parents were United States citizens; their families were there on United States business; and a return to the United States was foreordained. In other words, they were just visiting. In Obama’s case, he was living in a foreign country as if he was a citizen of that country: one of his “parents” was a citizen of that country; neither of his parents were there on United States business; and an eventual return to the United States was not certain.

Personally, I find Obama’s nonstandard background interesting but irrelevant to his candidacy. Some people though see it as either as asset or a liability. I don’t think either of these views - asset or liability - is more wrong or more right. They simply reflect an ongoing tension between different beliefs about how the United States should interact with the rest of the world.

Obama himself cites his ties to other countries as an advantage, saying that “having lived in Indonesia for four years, having family that is impoverished in small villages in Africa” lets him know the people of the world. He has said he is both “a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world”.

Similarly, for some - perhaps most - Obama supporters, his background is an asset, is desirable. They believe that Obama’s background gives him “a global perspective”. They say that his history provides an effective weapon “against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology”.

For others, Obama’s background is a liability for the very reasons Obama and his supporters view that background as an asset. It’s not that they question Obama’s patriotism; that is, they do not believe Obama will fail to pursue the best interests of the United States. It’s simply that they worry Obama’s close ties to other countries and global perspective mean his view of those best interests will not be the same as their own.

The difference between those who view Obama’s background as an asset and those who view it as a liability is perhaps the difference between those who prefer an arbitrator and those who prefer an advocate to resolve disputes. An arbitrator sees interconnections and prefers to resolve issues to everyone’s satisfaction; an advocate sees only the interests of his clients and wants the best deal for that client, period.

This issue is not unique to Obama. Recent Democratic Presidential candidates seem to struggle with the label of being too “internationalist”. What makes Obama unique is that his background provides an additional hook on which to hang this label. There has been a tendency to claim this extra hook has to do with race and religion, that “exotic” is a code word for “black” or “possibly Muslim”, and that people who view his background as a liability are simply racists or religious bigots. I don’t believe that.

Let’s imagine that Obama’s story is exactly the same except his biological father was French; his name is Francois Valery de Villepin (apologies to a couple of French politicians); his mother’s second husband was from Germany and that is where Francois lived between the ages of 5 and 10; and Francois has close relatives in both France and Germany. I think the same concerns about his background would arise.

Alternatively, let’s imagine that Obama’s story is exactly the same except his biological father was Russian; his name is Andrey Il’ych Narmonov (apologies to Tom Clancy); his mother’s second husband was from the Ukraine and that is where Andrey lived between the ages of 5 and 10; and Andrey has close relatives in both Russia and the Ukraine. Imagine how strong the concerns about Obama’s background would be in that case.

(Oddly enough, the Obama campaign does not seem to have emphasized a part of his story that could go some way toward reassuring those who find his background a liability: Obama’s return to the United States when he was 10. Not too long ago, I read something about his mother which referred to her being strong enough to let her son go back to Hawaii when he said that was what he wanted. If accurate, then perhaps that aspect of Obama’s history - that he himself wanted to return to the United States, to return home - needs to be a more prominently featured part of his narrative.)

I believe it is valid to consider Obama’s exotic background - whether positively or negatively - when deciding whether to vote for him. However, I also believe it is excessive concern about Obama’s background that has given rise to the repeated, undying, irrational claims that he is not qualified to run for President under Article Two, Section 1, Clause 5 of the Constitution. Rather than simply saying, “I’d be more comfortable with a President who doesn’t have any ties to other countries. I want an advocate who doesn’t know from nuanced”, some Obama detractors feel compelled to prove that Obama is literally not American enough to be President.

Given that Obama is a United States citizen, born in the United States to a mother who was a United States citizen, I find these attempts to disqualify him unseemly at best. An exotic background should not prevent someone from running for President. It is for each voter to decide for him or herself whether they find Obama’s history an asset, a liability, or an irrelevance.

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