Michelle Obama struck a raw nerve earlier this week when she suggested she had never been proud of her country until now. "For the first time in my adult lifetime," the 44-year-old wife of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama told a Milwaukee crowd, "I'm really proud of my country."
Conservative pundits and bloggers were quick to criticize Mrs. Obama. And even Sen. John McCain's wife, Cindy, let it be known that she has never had any problem being proud of her country.
Most liberals, on the other hand, were willing to give Michelle Obama the benefit of the doubt. Of course, she's proud of the United States, they insisted. It's just that she's especially proud now because, as an Obama campaign spokeswoman explained, for the first time in a long time, thousands of Americans who've never participated in politics before are coming out in record numbers to build a grass-roots movement for change. Her husband followed suit, saying that it wasn't our country that Michelle was not proud of, but politics as they've been practiced in recent years.
The flap might seem trivial, but it speaks to a much larger division between liberals and conservatives over the meaning of patriotism. Michelle Obama may consider herself a patriotic American. But her comments suggest that she sees the role of the patriot as critic: America needs perfecting, and until it conforms to her ideal, she won't be proud of it. She said her newfound pride in her country was "not just because Barack has done well, but because people are hungry for change." Mrs. Obama went on to say: "I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment."
It's a view her husband, Barack Obama, seems to share. Last fall, Sen. Obama stirred a similar controversy when he talked about his decision to quit wearing a flag lapel pin that he, like many members of Congress and others, had worn since the Sept. 11 attacks. He said that the pins had become "a substitute for … true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security." He added, "I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."
It is as if both Obamas are suggesting that America is somehow lacking, unless a President Obama can change it. It is a theme that seems to resonate with liberals: America could be a great nation -- if only liberals were in charge.
But most Americans already think their country is great -- no matter who occupies the White House. Patriotism isn't about loving your country when your party is in power. It isn't about liking its political leaders or even agreeing with all the nation's policies.
No matter how much we may have disliked Bill Clinton, conservatives didn't feel ashamed of our country or think it is any less great and noble a nation when he was in office. You can't imagine conservatives refusing to fly the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance because Clinton raised taxes or misbehaved in the Oval Office.
Patriotism is a lot like the unconditional love of a parent for a child. A parent doesn't demand a child be perfect in order to love him. Nor does that love mean that a parent does not recognize a child's faults.
Conservatives seem to understand this almost intuitively, but liberals seem to struggle with it. Liberals' patriotism often seems grudging -- as if they believe it's the country's duty to win their love rather than their duty to love their country.
Our elected officials don't make America great, nor do temporal policies. America is great because of its people, its defining institutions and its freedoms. You would think a woman hoping to be the country's next first lady could take pride in that.