In a front-page story in today’s Washington Post, Karen Tumulty finds that leading Republicans have unearthed a previously obscure concept with which to attack President Obama. That concept is “American exceptionalism.” Tumulty seems to view this development as part jockeying for position among presidential hopefuls and part attempt to raise questions about Obama’s Americanism.
Tumulty’s first error is to assume that the concept of “American exceptionalism” is obscure. The term may not be common, but the view that this is an exceptional nation — which is, I believe, supported by overwhelming evidence — is a staple of American thought.
Until now, U.S. presidents have consistently articulated this view, their speechwriters competing to find ways to say it in novel ways. President Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” probably takes the first-place prize. But think too of George H.W. Bush’s statement (reiterated by Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic convention) that “America is a special place, not just another pleasant country somewhere on the UN Roll Call between Albania and Zimbabwe.”
If the theme of American exceptionalism generally has been articulated mainly in “big occasion” speeches, that’s because it is considered a given. And if we are now suddenly hearing a drumbeat, that’s because Obama has challenged American exceptionalism.
He did so most notably when he stated in France, during his first trip overseas, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Suddenly America was just another pleasant country like England or Greece.
Obama followed up by saying that the values in our Constitution are exceptional. But he also mentioned our “imperfect” faithfulness to these values. And, though he acknowledged that U.S. leadership in the world is “incumbent,” he expressed no particular enthusiasm or pride in this role. Thus, Obama’s attempted “walk-back” from his initial put down of American exceptionalism was incomplete and unsatisfying.
Tumulty also implies that the comparison to the “Brits and Greeks” is the sole basis for the claim that Obama rejects American exceptionalism. But after Michelle Obama said that her husband’s progress as a candidate made her proud of America for the first time in her adult life, Obama’s gloss on her remark took no serious exception to it. And when Rev. Wright regularly castigated America in his sermons, Obama took no offense. Oprah Winfrey left Wright’s congregation; Barack Obama did not.
One can understand why the concept of American exceptionalism underwhelms Obama. As Tumulty notes (per Seymour Martin Lipset), the concept often has been invoked as an explanation for why the U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party. Much of Obama’s career, especially his many years as a community organizer, strongly suggests that he is less than comfortable with the fact that the U.S. is exceptional in this respect. No wonder he put the concept of American exceptionalism down when asked about it in France.
If American exceptionalism has indeed become a “conservative rallying cry,” it means that Obama’s chickens have come home to roost.
UPDATE: Obama is far from the only liberal who finds the concept of American exceptionalism a bit ridiculous. Tumulty herself seems to have trouble writing about it with a straight face. She begins her story with this line: “Is this a great country or what?”
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