Nate Silver has just posted a second piece on the possible effects of the killing of Osama bin Laden on the reelections chances of Barack Obama. Nate doesn’t address some of the points I raised here, but I think we have complimentary arguments that many analysts are underestimating the positive effects that killing bin Laden has on the reelection chances of Obama.
It occurs to me, though, that most arguments, including my previous posts, have missed an obvious result of this news. Many swing voters, especially those over 50 and those who don’t live in places where it’s common to know people of mixed racial and cultural heritages, have a hard time thinking of Obama as “one of us.” I’m not talking about the often overtly racist birthers or the thirty percent of Americans who will never stop hating Obama. But many others, including even some Democrats, have had a hard time warming to Obama. His cool demeanor and his cerebral rather than folksy rhetorical style have exacerbated the problems many Americans have in finding a common biographical connection with Obama. His name, his racial and national origin, his elite education, the ways he exhibits his faith and religiosity, and his international upbringing are so different from most non-urban, less cosmopolitan, older white voters that they don’t feel a sense of national kinship with him.
All of these ways in which Obama is different from most Americans have made it easier to prey on people’s uncertainties and make them wonder if Obama shared their patriotism. Obama is no shallow flag waver trafficking in jingoistic pablum. But it’s still been dispiriting to see how many people of good will still have doubts that Obama is sufficiently patriotic, or who believe his love of America is tempered and diluted by his cosmopolitanism and rationalism.
But for Americans of good will who nevertheless wonder if their president does, in fact, share their love of country and the bonds of national identity, there are few more visceral ways to demonstrate his commitment to America than to calmly, deliberately and with a palpable sense of confidence in the justness of the cause successfully lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and after bin Laden was killed, calmly, deliberately and with a quiet sense of satisfaction inform the nation and the world that they will no longer be menaced by violence planned and perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and those under his direct command.
In a great episodes of The Simpsons, Homer’s fear that Bart is gay exposes his cartoonish homophobia, but by the end of the episode, after his life is saved by the gay character John (played by filmmaker John Waters), Homer expresses his gratitude and acceptance of John. John responds by telling Homer “I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you’d be set.” Obama shouldn’t have had to oversee the death of Osama bin Laden to convince people he’s patriotic and that underneath the cool exterior his love for America is just as strong as anyone’s, and those with doubts about Obama may still have work to do in accepting as fully American those with backgrounds and lives very different from their own. But like with the gay man who who should never have had to gain acceptance, the end result is still acceptance.
Americans who were open to liking and respecting Barack Obama but found it hard to connect with him as “one of us” may now be more willing to accept that he understands them and shares their values. While that may not cause or sustain a big boost in Obama’s poll numbers, it will make it easier for these Americans to support the reelection of someone they may now be more inclined to accept is, despite some big differences, enough like the rest of us to continue being our president.