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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.

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.

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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.

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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.