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Obama's Thankless Thanksgiving

E.J. Dionne Jr.
Columnist
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. Considered among the best of America\'s new crop of columnists, E.J. Dionne combines his passions for people and politics with his keen…
E.J. Dionne Jr.

It’s now official: So in vogue are attacks on President Barack Obama that even his proclamation calling the nation to a day of Thanksgiving has become the focus of criticism.

Presidential Thanksgiving messages are a routine bit of executive prose that most attentive citizens happily ignore in this moment of national gratitude. But the sky-is-falling mood that now pervades Obama commentary couldn’t let this 435-word document pass without a few sniffs of disapproval.

The Gawker Web site called it an “uninspiring first effort from our most literary president” and expressed hope that he would spend “a little more time on it next year.” Politico damned it with faint analysis — it was “basic” and “brief” and “tread lightly” to avoid controversy.

Mostly, the message reiterated familiar Obama themes of diversity, community and service. The opening line referred to Thanksgiving as “a harvest celebration between European settlers and indigenous communities,” and Obama called attention to “the contributions of Native Americans, who helped the early colonists survive their first harsh winter and continue to strengthen our Nation.”

The holiday was also “a time for us to renew our bonds with one another, and we can fulfill that commitment by serving our communities and our Nation throughout the year.”

Maybe they’ll surprise me, but I’m willing to bet that a right-wing talk jock near you will soon be declaring the “indigenous communities” reference to be “un-American,” and the call to service to be yet another shout-out to “socialism.” We’ll also hear that the document never uses the word “prayer,” and that its one nod to God is in a quotation from George Washington (unless you count its mention of “houses of worship,” and the “year of Our Lord” in the date).

Yes, I’m afraid things have gotten so vexed for Obama that Thanksgiving itself has become thankless. As it happens, that proclamation is revealing, but not necessarily in the ways his critics are likely to suggest.

You wonder if Obama will use this brief respite for reflection to ponder how, in a year, he has been transformed from a man once seen as capable of parting raging seas to the object of a terrible hatred on the right and mild disappointment among his allies. His opponents are on the march, his friends are grumpy.

Obama might fairly repair to the comforting thought that he inherited an unparalleled combination of disasters in the economy and foreign policy, and created such a surge of hope that he was expected, unrealistically, to have put everything right by now.

He will eventually get to claim a great victory on health care. He helped the country avoid financial catastrophe. And isn’t he doing pretty well in the polls, given the afflictions of unemployment and other forms of economic carnage?

This line of thinking animates the White House. Obama’s aides say it reflects a side of him that many have found attractive: a cool, detached confidence in the long term that refuses to be disturbed by passing controversies and criticisms.

Yet there is a lesson for the president in the rote quality of his Thanksgiving proclamation that is significant only because it reveals Obama’s underlying problem: What the document lacked was any sense of fighting spirit, any larger purpose, any gauntlet thrown down before his foes.

Contrast it with a Thanksgiving message Franklin D. Roosevelt offered in 1934 that was unapologetic in declaring his political goals. “Our sense of social justice has deepened,” Roosevelt insisted. “We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality. … We can truly say, ‘What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.’ “

A year later, Roosevelt was at it again. “We can be grateful,” he wrote, “that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself.”

Roosevelt was no less pragmatic than Obama. He, too, was attacked demagogically as a “socialist,” and was equally loathed by his adversaries.

Yet Roosevelt was a “happy warrior,” a phrase he used about Al Smith that actually described FDR himself. He relished taking the fight to his enemies, once boasting: “I welcome their hatred.”

Obama will have more to be grateful for next Thanksgiving if he accepts that his foes intend to fight him for the next three years. He needs to discover the joy that FDR took in fighting back, even in official documents that normally pass unnoticed.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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