Obama's Flawed Idea of 'American Exceptionalism'

It has become a staple of criticism directed against the president on the right to accuse him of lacking a belief in "American exceptionalism" -- the notion that our history, our Constitution, and our national character set us apart from other nations.

For many, this plays directly into the theme that the president is trying to fundamentally alter American society in ways that are inimical to our national identity, and that deny those traditions and values that define us as an exceptional people.

Of the latter, I have no doubt. President Obama is trying to unmoor us from a treasured and traditional past and set us adrift in unknown waters. His notion of "fundamental change" for America is so far beyond what is necessary to get us out of this recession, or even fix problems with our health care system, that he has lost sight of the safe harbor offered by our first principles and cherished heritage. Nor has he acted prudently. This alone should have caused the kind of emotional outpouring we've seen from the tea party movement and those who so strenuously spoke their mind at the health care town hall forums last summer.

What critics of these grassroots expressions of outrage fail to see is that the president's broad attack on tradition is more than just a desire to address problems with the economy or health insurance. What the president seeks is nothing less than a basic alteration in the American experiment, a radical change in the way the American citizen relates to the federal government. It seems to have come as a surprise to our president and many of his supporters that there would be such fierce opposition to this idea. Why this is so defines the president's idea of "exceptionalism" and his stated desire to redefine American identity.

In an excellent essay for National Review, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru make the case that President Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism at all:

The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged. In his first year, Obama tried to avoid the cultural hot buttons that tripped up Bill Clinton and created the “gays, guns, and God” backlash of 1994. But he has stoked a different type of cultural reaction. The level of spending, the bailouts, and the extent of the intervention in the economy contemplated in health-care and cap-and-trade legislation have created the fear that something elemental is changing in the country. At stake isn’t just a grab bag of fiscal issues, but the meaning of America and the character of its people: the ultimate cultural issue.

The oft-heard lament from conservatives lately -- "I want my country back" -- has been twisted by the left into something mean, something ignorant, even racist. They aren't listening. Nor can they fathom the depth of feeling that lament reveals. It is not an exaggeration to look at what the president has done since he's taken office and say that it has undermined the very foundations of what makes us special. This "elemental changing" referred to by Messrs. Lowry and Ponnuru is sensed as an abandonment of the basic principles that define American exceptionalism -- a state of being that most Americans do not want to give up, and won't give up without a fight.

But does President Obama believe we are an exceptional people? Lowry and Ponnuru say no, that President Obama has actually rejected American exceptionalism. As proof, they offer the facts that he doesn't wear a flag pin, that he has been "detached" from American history, and his now famous response to a direct question about exceptionalism:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exception­alism.

Case closed? Not exactly. Conor Friedersdorf makes the point that if one were to read what the president said in context it would be clear that his rhetoric is not that different from any other president's:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

The president went on to say that "America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity..." These are hardly the words of someone who doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. The question the NRO writers should have asked is: Does Obama believe in the traditional definition of American exceptionalism? I think we can safely say that he does not. Instead, he has substituted a new paradigm embraced by the left that holds America to be a work in progress; it holds that the ideal of America is exceptional, but the reality is not.