Barack Obama's Vision of America versus Lynne Cheney's

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Ian Reifowitz is Mentor in Historical Studies at State University of New York, Empire State College

Of Thee I Sing is Barack Obama’s newest book.  Dedicated to his daughters, it expresses his definition of Americanness.  Similarly, Lynne Cheney published America: A Patriotic Primer for her grandchildren in 2002.  As children’s books, neither is overtly political.  Nevertheless, the visions of national identity they present differ in subtle but profound ways.

But first, the similarities:  Both books emphasize pride in America and in being American.  Both highlight the principles of justice, equality, and liberty, as well as the struggles to guarantee them for all Americans.  Both are demographically inclusive, although Obama’s is a bit more so.  Six of his thirteen heroes are non-white and five are women.  One, Sitting Bull, fought the United States Army to defend his people’s land.  Of course, so did every Confederate soldier, but that’s another story.

The differences in what each author emphasizes are clear.  Cheney’s American history is more focused on politics and presidents.  Five individuals get their own page:  Martin Luther King, Jr. and four presidents.  Obama’s thirteen Americans include only two:  Lincoln and Washington.  Obama devotes more space to activists and figures of social and cultural importance.  His selections reflect a bottom-up approach to history whereas Cheney’s is more traditional.

Cheney moreover defines America specifically as a Judeo-Christian country.  One of her twenty-six pages (one for each letter) is “’G’ is for God.”  She declares that “we” trust in him, thus explicitly excluding from that “we” anyone who does not worship God.  Obama’s book mentions nothing specifically religious.  He does explain that Americans are people of all religions and beliefs.

These two conceptions of America diverge because each author wrote with a fundamentally different purpose, a different understanding of our national identity.  Above all, Cheney hopes to inculcate a deep sense of gratitude for what America offers its citizens.  Her goal is for us “to understand how blessed we are” because of “the liberty and opportunity” our people enjoy.  Thus, her depiction of America is almost wholly celebratory and presents America as a finished product that has already achieved perfection.

Obama, on the other hand, when he speaks of “build[ing] upon all that is good in our nation,” and “fix[ing] the future,” is describing America as a work in progress.  We are still perfecting our union.  His telling of the past strikes a balance between celebrating America’s triumphs and its egalitarian principles while also weaving into the narrative examples of when we have not lived up to them.

The difference between the books on this is one of tone and, yes, empathy, on the part of the respective authors.  Cheney, although she mentions the wrongs done to Americans, does so in a perfunctory manner as if they were merely speed bumps on the road to perfection.  By presenting a history that more fully reflects the experiences of Americans of every heritage—for example, Obama movingly cites the “broken hearts and broken promises” endured by tribes like the Sioux—he seeks to ensure that all of us identify with that history as our own.  In order to achieve that goal, his book not only acknowledges but commemorates the pain suffered by those whom this country mistreated and whose descendants he encourages to embrace their Americanness and their fellow Americans.

In dealing with diversity, Cheney sometimes simply ticks off groups like she’s checking boxes on a list—“‘N’ is for Native Americans”—whereas Obama uses examples of individuals of different ethnicities not as representations of their own groups, but to illustrate universally American qualities:  creativity, intelligence, bravery, strength, respectfulness, kindness, persistence.   He describes America as “a family” and cites Lincoln, who asked that all Americans “behave as kin.”  Obama also speaks of how all of us contribute “unique gifts and gives us the courage to lift one another up.”  Compared to Cheney’s book, Obama’s vision of America works harder to create a unity that truly reflects diversity.

Finally, Obama tells his daughters that these Americans of every background and region “are all a part of you…you are one of them.”  This represents a powerful call for us to see ourselves fully and completely as one people, one community.

Ultimately, Cheney wants to strengthen the bond between Americans and their country as an institution.  Obama wants to do this as well, but he also seeks to strengthen the ties that bind Americans to one another.  One emphasizes national greatness, the other national unity.  This distinction reflects the essential difference between the conservative and liberal understanding of Americanness.

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Peter Kovachev - 1/17/2011

Hi Sue, congratulations on passing through the portal and welcome to Our Universe. A few things here are a bit different from what you may be used to.

For example, you may wish to check the polls, such as today's by Rasmussen: "...Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Monday shows that 27% of the nation's voters Strongly Approve of the way that Barack Obama is performing his role as president. Thirty-eight percent (38%) Strongly Disapprove, giving Obama a Presidential Approval Index rating of -11...." (

Obama is, however, more popular in Europe than in the US and should consider running there, rather than in the US, where he is bound to get another "shellacking" as in the mid-terms. I'm thinking there is little he can mess up further in either Greece or Portugal.

You noticed my country is doing rather well lately, I see. But I'm afraid that in this dimension it's not our "socialism" that's to credit (social programs and a long gun registry don't generate wealth by our laws of nature), but a fiscally responsible Conservative party government which continues to ignore directives from the Obami. We also have a tiny population, are awash in oil and other resources, and tightly manage our borders regardless of who is in power.

I know that Obama hasn't stopped speechifying and campaigning, but appearances aside, an election won't take place for a while, and the GOP has plenty of time to pick a replacement for Barry. But don't worry, Republicans and the Tea Party folks are much better brought up than the "Chicago Machine" goons in Washington or the desperate and angry loonie left the US is saddled with, and Obama won't have to face the crude hatred former president Bush was exposed to. And it's a good thing too, because Obama doesn't take criticism too well, as you will notice.

Cheers, and try to enoy the real world here in spite of its many disappointments for you.

Sue Kotzur - 1/17/2011

Conservatives remind me of alcoholic families. They are so dead set against analyzing the ways they could be better that they react with a devotion to proclaiming that they are indisputably "exceptional", not just a good family but the BEST family that ever was.

Liberals are willing to look at their flaws in order to honestly try to overcome them. We saw that in the aftermath to this Tucson shooting. Liberal commentators offered to tone it down and revamp their program formats. Conservative hosts only amped up the volume and, if anything, were more confrontational and hostile than ever.

Sue Kotzur - 1/17/2011

Ah, yes, Canada. The land of universal health coverage, gun control, banking regulations and all that "socialism" that makes your country so much more stable and indeed, socially mobile, than our own.

Your comments reflect an "understanding" of the US that is gleaned from online message boards. If you actually lived among us, perhaps you'd understand that Obama, despite the hateful rhetoric from the right, is THE most popular politician in the US and that the Republican party has virtually no one they can run against him. He is almost a lock for re election.

But it's no concern to you, as you live in a country that was able to modernize and tend to its citizens without the obstruction and reactionary policies of an absurdly conservative right wing.

Peter Kovachev - 1/17/2011

Huh? Are you sure you've been properly instructed on the definition of the term "ideological," Tim? I know, education's not what it used to be, but even kids now know how to google a "big" word...or to spell "preppping."

And, yes, it would be an honor and a blast working for a GOP candidate in a revived, dynamic party, perhaps someone like Chris Christie, but as a Canadian, and one happy to stay in Canada, I doubt I'd be of much use. Anyhow, given how many in your country are shocked and disgusted with your current administration, I'm sure candidates will have their choice pickings from the local crop.

Tim Matthewson - 1/14/2011

Could Kovachev be the winner of the most ideological flack on the block? Sounds like he is working for a Republican presidential candidate preping for 2012?

Peter Kovachev - 1/12/2011

Could this be the winner of the year's Most Insipid Essay Award? In January, already?

I mean, really, this "unifier" stuff may have worked before election day, but given Obama's overall record of petty, petulant and outright vindictive divisiveness in his dealings with the media, the public and his proclaimed "enemies"(i.e., Republicans), this strained piffle about "Americanness" is a bit of a flop.