WASHINGTON — This is what progress looks like for a president named Barack Hussein Obama.
Not so long ago, many in conservative and Republican ranks were eager to paint him as an alien creature far removed from American life as most Americans understand it. A determined cadre insisted Obama was not even eligible to be president, claiming he was born outside the United States. Obama eventually put that to rest by making public his birth certificate, which proved he was born in Hawaii.
Fox News falsely reported that he had attended a “madrassa” during his childhood in Indonesia. (He actually went to a public, non-religious school.) And Newt Gingrich concluded that Obama exhibited “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior,” a strange description that’s hard to square with such Obama undertakings as ordering the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Obama’s adversaries have not thrown in the towel in their efforts to distance him from his own country. But they are bringing him closer and closer to home.
Thus did Mitt Romney’s victory speech after the New Hampshire primary link Obama to Europe not once or twice but three times. Obama, Romney said, “wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society” and “takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe” as opposed to “the cities and small towns of America.”
“I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are,” Romney declared, “not the worst of what Europe has become.”
So Obama is still not fully American, in Romney’s telling. But conservatives talk a great deal about defending and preserving Western civilization, which we share with our European friends. So moving Obama from Indonesia and Kenya to Europe seems like a big concession for their side. Who knows? In a few months, Obama might even be moved to some midpoint in the Atlantic.
The Europeanization of Obama is progress in another way. Not so long ago, it was common for the extreme right to accuse liberals of harboring a desire to turn the U.S. into a Soviet-style communist state. Now that the Soviet Union is dead — and China, which claims to be communist, is pioneering an anti-democratic capitalist model — that particular libel is passe. If the very worst the liberals are trying to do is mimic European social democracy, that sure beats creating gulags or imposing commissars.
The most benign reading of Romney’s speech is that he is suggesting Obama’s economic policies will send us into a crisis like the one that has engulfed the European Union. This charge is nonsense. Like it or not, the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve have been far more aggressive than their European counterparts in protecting our financial institutions from the sorts of problems that European banks face. And we have a strong federal government, which the European Union lacks. A crisis in Rhode Island would not threaten the nation the way a meltdown in Greece affects the EU.
And the core premise of Romney’s claim is untrue. The notion that Obama wants to turn the United States into a “European-style entitlement society” is laughable. It’s not even a fair description of Europe, which boasts of some highly productive and innovative capitalist economies. As for Obama, he has bent over backward to strengthen market capitalism, sometimes to the consternation of his own supporters. Yes, Obama is trying to get more people health insurance. Is that a bad idea just because the Europeans have done a better job of this than we have?
But by far the biggest flaw in Romney’s Euro-Obama riff is the implication that there is something terribly wrong about learning from Europe. The genius of the American character is that we have always been willing to take lessons from any country that had something to teach us. We don’t turn away from good ideas just because they didn’t originate here. We refine them and adjust them to suit our needs and our tradition. Openness is an American strength.
Two fine historians, James Kloppenberg and Daniel Rodgers, have written illuminating books on how progressive ideas crisscrossed the Atlantic at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were all happy to learn from Europe. Were they un-American? Then again, no one ever accused them of “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.” Is it asking too much of Obama’s opponents to acknowledge once and for all that he is really and truly American?
E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group