THE BLOG
05/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Defining Obama

Despite having all but secured the Democratic nomination, the last few weeks have not been particularly good for Barack Obama. As Hillary Clinton's desperation peaks, and as her message morphs into something akin to a Karl Rove Talent Show, Obama has found himself taking heavy fire. And while polls have suggested that Obama's numbers have not been impacted by Reverend Wright, or "bitter-gate," or the tale of the missing flag pin, the Republican Party, with the happy assistance of the Clinton campaign, is beginning to define Obama in a way that could be dangerous come the fall.

For most of the campaign, Obama has been adept at preventing his opponents from defining him. When Hillary portrayed him as inexperienced, he was quick to point out that experience in Washington had little relationship to change in Washington. When Hillary suggested Obama had yet to pass a commander-in-chief threshold, Obama argued forcefully that if having supported the Iraq War was a prerequisite to meet that threshold, then it was the standard itself, not Obama, that failed to meet the test.

But in the closing weeks of the Pennsylvania primary, the eruptions of a series of mini-crises resulted in Obama's opposition defining him as an out-of-touch and unpatriotic elitist, half radical Christian, half Muslim-in-disguise.

Perhaps it was the silliness of these claims that led Obama to dismiss them rather than confront them. Perhaps he, like many, assumed that the American people would not be so easily fooled. Yet, as the weeks rolled on and the vacuum of Pennsylvania's purgatory needed filling, the media began to adopt and circulate the very narrative the Clinton campaign had tried so hard to create.

As Thomas Edsall reports, the media tone has shifted sharply; Obama is described in newspapers as unelectable, in magazines as incapable of connecting with working class voters, and on television as someone who might be uncomfortable with patriotism. A debate about whether Obama is more similar to McGovern or Stevenson is not one he wants pundits to be having. Obama is being defined by others. It's time for him to do the defining.

Obama must do a better job of wrapping his story around ours. His background is one of the few that is actually one-of-a-kind; how many other Americans were born into an interracial marriage in 1960s Hawaii and raised in war-scarred Indonesia? Because Obama's story is so dramatically different than literally everyone else's, it would appear that some voters are having trouble understanding how his story relates to theirs.

Obama has always been a master of weaving the story of his life into the greater American experience. The speech that launched his political career on a national stage got some of its greatest applause lines when describing his origins. But now, when Obama speaks of his background, it often takes the form of a list: his father was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas, born in Hawaii, raised in Indonesia, a half-Indonesian sister, and family members who resemble the UN General Assembly. It lacks the punch, that intimate feeling that he empathizes with voters because he understands them. But this need not be the case.

Obama understands what it means to be poor, to be an outcast, to be different. Having spent his early career working everyday with working class Americans who had been laid off, he understands better than Hillary or McCain ever could, what it means to be told your job is leaving forever. Having been raised by a single mother, he knows what it means to be a struggling woman in the workforce. It is Obama's very background that answers the questions being asked of him.

It's time for him to say so.

He should also show some anger and passion when told he isn't patriotic enough to be president. "Not patriotic?" he should exclaim with disbelief. "How dare you!" Barack Obama has dedicated his life to serving the American public. Everything he does suggests that he has an abiding pride in his country. It is a pride that made him yearn to find a better life for the downtrodden of Chicago's Southside. It is a pride that led him to teach Constitutional Law, a course which, at its very base, is a singing tribute to our most cherished founding document. Obama knows his story is only possible in America, and he is running for president to ensure that promise of America is fulfilled. He is an unabashed patriot.

It's time for him to say so.