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Obama Seeks To Reassure Voters On Patriotism


Just days before the nation celebrates Independence Day, Barack Obama went to Independence, Missouri to deliver a speech on patriotism.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democrat Presidential Candidate): I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

Sen. OBAMA: And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

NORRIS: Barack Obama went on the offensive after facing persistent rumors that he's a Muslim or anti-American, and persistent criticism for not wearing a flag pin. And we should say he has recently begun sporting a flag pin, and he had it on today.

NPR's Mara Liasson joins me now. Mara, this speech is part of a week-long focus on American values, leading up to July 4th. What is Barack Obama trying to accomplish?

MARA LIASSON: Well, he's trying to accomplish placing himself right in the mainstream, where questions of values and patriotism occur. He's running a new ad all across the country, where it shows him with his grandparents, his white grandparents, talking about how he has mainstream American values and how he learned them from his grandparents.

He also talked about that a little bit in this speech. He's also going on a foreign trip. Now, that's something the candidates always do, but that also kind of is a push-back against these rumors and what he considers to be attacks against his patriotism. There are plenty of them on the Web. He's even got something called FighttheSmears.com, a Web site of his own, to debunk some of these.

NORRIS: Now Mara, you noted some of the biographical themes that we heard in the speech and that we've seen in Barack Obama's television advertisements, and there's one thing that was curious that he mentioned. You talked about his mother introducing him to the Declaration of Independence while they were living in Indonesia. Is it surprising that he would mention that country in a speech about American patriotism?

LIASSON: I think not. I think the fact that he grew up in Indonesia is a fact. The fact that he is stressing that even abroad, his mother was instilling in him these American values, reading the Declaration of Independence to him, really does underline his whole story that he's lived all over the world, but he always has, as the bedrock, American values.

NORRIS: And I want to ask you about some of the things he said directly in the speech. Obama outlined his definition of patriotism. He said patriotism is more than loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. It is loyalty to ideas, and let's listen quickly to what he had to say about dissent.

Sen. OBAMA: Recognizing a wrong being committed in this country's name, insisting that we deliver on the promise of our Constitution, these are the acts of patriots, men and women who are defending what is best in America. And we should never forget that, especially when we disagree with them, especially when they make us uncomfortable with their words.

NORRIS: Mara, this is interesting. It's not your standard God, flag and apple-pie rhetoric.

LIASSON: No, but it is something that Democrats have tried to do over the last several election cycles, which is to say that patriotism just doesn't belong to Republicans or conservatives or to people who support the actions of the current U.S. government.

NORRIS: Now we noted Barack Obama was wearing a flag pin today.

LIASSON: Yes. This flag-pin thing is very interesting, and he referred to it very obliquely. He said at certain times over the last 16 months, I found my patriotism challenged, at times as a result of my own carelessness. And what he's referring to is that he didn't wear a flag pin for a while, and it became a controversial thing.

Now what's interesting about it, it wasn't just that he didn't wear a flag pin on one day or another. He said, quote, "The truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin, but shortly after 9/11, particularly because we're talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for true patriotism." And he said: "I decided I would not wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I would try to tell people what I believe about this country, and that would be a testimony to my own patriotism."

NORRIS: Obama, throughout all this, sounds like he's essentially saying cut it out when it comes to all this sparring about patriotism and love of country. Today, his campaign even chastised one of its own surrogates, Wes Clark, who on "Face the Nation" this weekend said of John McCain, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president. It sounds like Barack Obama's campaign did not like those statements.

LIASSON: No. There was a lot of controversy around those statements. The Obama campaign issued a statement saying he rejects the statements by General Clark. Today, McCain was asked about it at a press conference, and here's what he said.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): If that's the kind of campaign that Senator Obama and his surrogates and his supporters want to engage, I understand that. But it doesn't reduce the price of a gallon of gas by one penny. It doesn't achieve our energy independence any - make it come any closer. It doesn't help an American stay in their home who are in risk of losing it today.

LIASSON: So McCain is basically saying this is not the new type of politics that Obama has promised to run. I do think that Clark's comments were part and parcel of a new thinking in politics, that you have to attack someone at the point of their greatest strength. McCain's war-hero background, of course, is one of his greatest strengths, although McCain has never said that his Vietnam experience qualifies him to be commander-in-chief.

NORRIS: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Michelle Norris