It’s a theme that recurs in Obama’s speeches. In his first inaugural, he said America’s “greatness” resided in those Americans who “traveled across oceans in search of a new life… settled the West…and plowed the hard earth” but also those who “toiled in sweatshops and endured the lash of the whip.” In other words, America achieved greatness because Americans seeking dignity and freedom triumphed over Americans who sought to deny them those things. In Obama’s second inaugural he talked about the “star that guides us” toward full equality, “just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” This March, on the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, he said what occurred there was “a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.”
Obviously, Obama knows America faces enemies abroad. But unlike Bush, who took World War II and the Cold War as his precedents for the “war on terror” and thus cast America as a virtuous nation menaced by foreign malevolence, Obama refers frequently to America’s malevolence within. He sees American history as a series of moral struggles pitting Americans seeking equal opportunity and full citizenship against Americans who defend an unjust or bigoted status quo.
Obama clearly sees the current nativist, bigotry-laden, hysteria as such a struggle. He knows he may not win. But he wants future historians to know exactly where he stood. They will. And as a result, I suspect, they’ll record the Syrian refugee battle as among his finest hours.