On Being American Enough

Different visions of what America is supposed to be. Different dreams about what America should become. This is what separates President Barack Obama from a large and growing number of his constituents.

Rightly or wrongly, many on the right and left have taken it upon themselves to define what it means to be a "good" or "true" American ever more restrictively. Got a problem with an Islamic cultural center and mosque being built within spitting distance of Ground Zero? Obviously, you're an intolerant bigot. Support the building of that icon to Islamic triumphalism? Obviously, you're a friend of the terrorists.

Of course, the argument extends far beyond mosque building. It is, as Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin point out, a new fissure in the ever-evolving fault lines that divide the country ideologically.

One side wants to change the definition of what it means to be American and the other doesn't:

It's a classic case of be careful what you wish for. President Barack Obama wanted to end the baby boomer-era culture wars — and he's done it.

But along the way, Obama has sparked an even more visceral values debate about whether he's moving the country toward socialism and over the very definition of what it means to be American.

Smith and Martin attempt to define the battle over what it means to be an American as a substitute for the culture wars over abortion, gay marriage, and other moral issues as defined by the religious right. These issues have been pushed into the background as a result of economic conditions and Democratic overreach in Congress.

That may be too pat an explanation. The Christian conservatives I know are none too happy that their issues have been prorogued by conservative elites who are salivating at the electoral opening presented by ghastly Democratic failures in creating jobs and Obama's growing unpopularity. Who is to say what the lay of the land will be in the summer of 2012 when the GOP next meets to decide on a platform? If the president is allowed another Supreme Court choice, I daresay those issues will come back to the front burner in a hurry.

In truth, it comes down to a difference in vision and dreams. Does anyone have the right to dismiss someone else's vision of what America should be? Or denigrate their dreams of what America can become? Certainly criticism of that vision and of those dreams is perfectly rational and reasonable. Ideally, such criticism should be tolerated by both sides in our republic.

A conservative's vision of America starts with first principles, and as Peter Wehner points out, the president does not believe in those principles:

"What we're having here are debates about first principles," Wehner said. "A lot of people think he's trying to transform the country in a liberal direction in the way that Ronald Reagan did in a conservative direction. This is not the normal push and pull of politics. It gets down to the purpose and meaning of America."

No first principles and no traditional understanding of American exceptionalism, says Mike Huckabee:

"He grew up more as a globalist than an American," Huckabee said. "To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."

James Taranto believes that many Americans don't think Obama is "American enough":

Obama's success in overcoming black doubts does not suggest an easy solution to his current predicament. To a large extent, he has tried to act as a bridge between America and "the world," much as he acted as a bridge between black Americans and America as a whole. But being "truly and fully part of the world," at least as Obama seems to understand it, would constitute a diminution rather than an enhancement of America's status.

Then there's the president's evident disdain for the literal meaning of the Constitution, where he seeks to use the document not as a guide but as a false justification for his radical "remaking" of America. Stretching executive power and the "Commerce Clause" to the breaking point in service to his personal vision, Barack Obama has set himself adrift from the constitutional anchor and set sail for shores that cannot be seen, much less sensed. It is a journey many of his fellow Americans are refusing to take.