Obama Seeks To Reassure Voters On Patriotism

Democrat Barack Obama says he won't question the patriotism of others during the presidential race, and blames his own "carelessness" for some criticism of him. The speech is part of an effort to reassure voters about his commitment to the country.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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.

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Candidates' Surrogates Sling Mud

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the National Governors Association in May. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain had their surrogates working overtime on the Sunday talk shows, and both sides were on the attack.

Speaking on ABC's This Week, Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said, "I think Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope perhaps should be retitled 'The Audacity of Hypocrisy.' "

Meanwhile, over on CBS' Face the Nation, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a Democrat, said: "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."

Clark's comment was a salvo fired at one of McCain's key strengths, said Politico.com's John Harris, noting that attacks on John McCain's war record have not had traction in the past.

"That's a pretty ... audacious statement to seemingly challenge what is John McCain's most impressive personal and political asset, which is his war service." Harris said that although there are many liberal bloggers who question McCain's military record, he notes that mainstream political attacks have backfired. "This has not been fertile ground for McCain's critics, for pretty obvious reasons," he said.

At the same time, Harris said, McCain's campaign has been falling behind in the message war. "Obama has been getting vastly more media coverage and has been driving the narrative for several months." Using Pawlenty, whose very presence on a Sunday show fuels vice presidential rumors, could be a way for McCain to enliven the contest, he said. "If McCain can use this vice presidential selection contest to produce a little drama and attract some attention for his campaign, that wouldn't be such a bad thing for him."

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