Obama's Flawed Idea of 'American Exceptionalism'

It is a view that goes hand in hand with the left's notion of patriotism. Peter Beinart, in a brilliant essay for Time magazine, defined patriotism on the left thusly:

If conservatives tend to see patriotism as an inheritance from a glorious past, liberals often see it as the promise of a future that redeems the past. Consider Obama's original answer about the flag pin: "I won't wear that pin on my chest," he said last fall. "Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism." Will make this country great? It wasn't great in the past? It's not great as it is?

The liberal answer is, Not great enough. For liberals, America is less a common culture than a set of ideals about democracy, equality and the rule of law. American history is a chronicle of the distance between those ideals and reality. And American patriotism is the struggle to narrow the gap. Thus, patriotism isn't about honoring and replicating the past; it's about surpassing it.

What informs President Obama's love of America is the promise of what America can be, not what she is today. Similarly, his idea of exceptionalism is animated by the belief that we can be so much more than what we are, and that in order to achieve that lofty goal, radical surgery is necessary to excise the ghosts of racism, sexism, homophobia, aggressive militarism, evil capitalism -- and tens of millions who don't have health insurance. To Obama, there is no difference between the evils of slavery and the fact that so many have no insurance. Each is a hindrance to achieving the American ideal of an "exceptional" society as envisioned by the president

We don't understand this kind of thinking on the right. To love one's country in the abstract? But it explains why the president is perfectly willing to hack away at the "essential constraints" of the Constitution to achieve what he believes to be an ideal America and be true to his concept of exceptionalism. It's why what he is doing "feels" so wrong, so out of control. Seeing our basic law as an impediment to an ideal America shows the president to be wedded to an exceptionalism that is outside the traditional definition, but connected to the idea of America being "different" because of our history and values.

And the president has learned well the code words and images to gloss over the fact that his idea of exceptionalism is quite different than that of most of the rest of us. Consider these rhetorical flourishes from the president's inaugural address and then try to square them with what he has actually been doing in office:

America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.


The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.


Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

The president has indeed given up some of those ideals "for expedience’s sake" ("Never let a crisis go to waste"), and we can question his commitment to our founding documents -- or at least his understanding of the spirit that animated the Founders in suffusing the Constitution with the idea that the natural rights we are all born with are immutable and everlasting.

For unlike traditional exceptionalism, the president's concept of what makes America special does not include the self-evident notion that Americans derive their rights from nature, or God. We are born free and no government made can alter that fact. The Constitution, for those who believe in traditional exceptionalism, was written to enshrine those natural rights into law. As Lowry and Ponnuru point out, there is more in the Constitution about what the government is prevented from doing, than what it is allowed to do.

But the president wants to alter that equation. To achieve his ideal America, he is willing to create a government that will, in effect, inform the people what they are allowed and what they will be prevented from doing. Health insurance reform is only the beginning because so many decisions we make every day potentially relate to our health and well being. Almost by default, and with the justification that it is necessary for the common good, the government's control over our actions will extend beyond the immediate sphere of health insurance and encompass areas we can only dimly fathom today.

President Obama means well. This much we can glean from his insistence that, even at the risk of disastrous political defeat at the polls in November for his party, he is willing to undertake this imprudent, radical, and unnecessary change in the relationship between the governed and the governors.

And it is his own flawed but heartfelt idea of "American exceptionalism" that is driving him and his party over a cliff.