Deconstructing Obama’s Exceptionalism

I spent all day yesterday down in Virginia Beach, at Regent University’s annual Ronald Reagan Symposium, in the company of fellow symposiasts Bill Kristol, Hadley Arkes, Jim Ceaser, and several others. The whole thing is usually broadcast on C-SPAN a few weeks after; I’ll try to make an announcement here.
The topic of this year’s Reagan symposium was American exceptionalism, that now-controversial idea that few have embraced more fully or embodied better than the Gipper. The left, which believes our standard of right should derive from some kind of international or cosmopolitan consensus, hates the idea. Michael Kinsley, who too often elides from being a smart liberal to merely a smart-mouthed liberal, derides American exceptionalism as “the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us.” Godfrey Hodgson, an often interesting British journalist (his co-authored book on the 1968 presidential campaign, An American Melodrama, is the best book on the subject, far better than Teddy White’s more acclaimed Making of the President), has written a whole book attacking American exceptionalism as a “dangerous myth.”
Needless to say, Obama came in for some heavy weather from all the panelists for what has become known as his “Strasbourg Statement” about American exceptionalism. When asked by a reporter over in France last year whether he believed in American exceptionalism, Obama replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he said, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Conservatives have not been alone in thinking this statement a gaffe (or a whiff if you prefer baseball metaphors). After all, if everyone is exceptional, then no one is, which is the way egalitarian liberals prefer things. My own corollary is that Obama may be correct in one respect, at least as regards my home state of California, which has decided to match up its Mediterranean climate with Mediterranean fiscal policy. Greek exceptionalism, indeed.
Michael Barone offered a possible and very interesting counter-intuitive interpretation that might get Obama off the hook. Michael took note of the two examples of exceptionalism that Obama chose–Britain and Greece. Not France (where he was) or any other country. Greece of course was the birthplace of democracy and the western political tradition, while it is from Britain that America brought the common law, John Locke’s ideas, and key institutional designs that we then modified and refined into what we now refer the Anglo-American political tradition. Is it possible, Michael wondered, that Obama was very cleverly and subtly sending out the message to perceptive people back home that he acknowledged or embraced at least one important aspect of American exceptionalism while preserving his liberal bona fides with his faculty lounge constituency and at the same time offering a diplomatic answer for his European audience?
UPDATE: I had forgotten that Michael had sent his text to me. Here’s his exact formulation:

Most of my friends and colleagues have taken these words as saying that he wasn’t an American exceptionalist at all, and I’m inclined to agree. But I wonder if the president wasn’t being a little sly here. For aren’t the British exceptional in having given the world the English language and the rule of law and a principles of toleration which few other societies have developed on their own? And don’t the Greeks claim the heritage of the philosophers of ancient Athens and other Greek city-states around the Aegean and the Mediterranean who provide the basis still for so much of our learning and our thinking? Perhaps by choosing these two nationalities Obama was secretly signaling those of us who are American exceptionalists that he shares our vision–one that has been set out with some eloquence in a couple of his more recent speeches–while preserving his cover among his core constituency which regards American exceptionalism with scorn and sees those espousing it as simpletons and bigots. Perhaps; I doubt it; but let us hold it in our minds as a possibility.

Let me add that Obama has on other occasions said that “In no other country on earth is my story even possible.” I’ll just add that while Michael is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of political demography (indeed, he got very excited during a break when the first 2010 Census numbers released yesterday came up on his laptop), he could do a more than passable job as a Straussian exegete.


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