Will Obama’s “Country Before Party” Message Work?

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In the summer of 2008, John McCain unveiled a new slogan to use against Barack Obama: “Country First.” The phrase was meant to convey the former P.O.W.s’ patriotism and heroism. But it also sought to cast Obama as interested in personal advancement at the expense of America’s interests, especially when it came to “support[ing] the troops” in Iraq. McCain and his surrogates specifically argued that the Arizonan had defied his own party when necessary to serve America’s greater interest, and that Obama had not.

Three years later, Obama is borrowing the same theme from his former rival. Obama’s Labor Day speech in Detroit contained this key passage:

So I’m going to propose ways to put America back to work that both parties can agree to, because I still believe both parties can work together to solve our problems. And given the urgency of this moment, given the hardship that many people are facing, folks have got to get together.

But we’re not going to wait for them. We’re going to see if we’ve got some straight shooters in Congress. We’re going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party. We’ll give them a plan, and then we’ll say, do you want to create jobs? Then put our construction workers back to work rebuilding America. Do you want to help our companies succeed? Open up new markets for them to sell their products. You want — you say you’re the party of tax cuts? Well then, prove you’ll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans. (Applause.) Show us what you got.

Like McCain before him, Obama is appealing to the public’s disdain for knee-jerk partisanship. The intensity these days may be on the political margins, but most Americans don’t see compromise as a dirty word. They want results.

It sounds like we’re going to hear more about “country before party” in Obama’s jobs speech Thursday night, and possibly well into the 2012 campaign. We may hear less about “Winning the Future,” a gentler, less confrontational phrase at the heart of in Obama’s January State of the Union address, and which once seemed a likely pick for his re-election slogan. But Obama’s Winning the Future speech actually laid the groundwork for his new attacks on Republicans. “What comes of this moment is up to us,” Obama said in January. “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.” Back then, Obama was appealing for bipartisanship and collegiality. Today, Obama is building the case that he extended his hand, and Republicans sank their fangs into it.

“Country First” wasn’t enough to sell the American people on John McCain, though there are plenty of reasons why he lost in 2008. More ominous, perhaps, is that this angle of attack isn’t so different from the case Obama has made against the GOP for more than a year now: That “[g]ridlock as a political strategy is destructive to the country.” His latest iteration of that theme is a little sharper and a little more memorable. But ultimately it’s not words that will save Obama. It’s jobs. And right now, there’s precious little sign of those on the dark American horizon.