10/17/2012 09:45 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Obama's America at the Debate: Immigrant Kids "Understand Themselves as Americans"

At last night's debate, President Obama said the following:

"For young people who come here, brought here oftentimes by their parents, have gone to school here, pledged allegiance to the flag, think of this as their country, understand themselves as Americans in every way except having papers, then we should make sure that we give them a pathway to citizenship, and that's what I've done administratively."

This remark, which refers to the Americans covered by the Obama administration's actions to provide work permits for young people brought here as children but without documentation, offers real insight into the president's inclusive approach to American national identity.

Where some on the right would see nothing more than an "illegal immigrant," Obama recognizes a young adult who has been in this country, for example, for twenty out of the twenty-five years of her life and who has gone through an irreversible process of Americanization. That person is nothing but an American in terms of her national identity. He understands what it would mean to that person to be expelled from the only homeland she has essentially ever known. President Obama understands how national identities are formed, both on the individual and the societal level. He understand how and why an American comes to feel an attachment to this country and to his fellow Americans.

The debate tonight was about many things, mostly about policy differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. For me, as a scholar of national identity, that one small remark stood out as demonstrative of something far larger. Only one of these candidates has demonstrated, for years and years, a public record of understanding how national identity works, and thus how to invigorate the national identity that binds together the American people.