American exceptionalism

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM…. A reporter asked President Obama an interesting question yesterday: “[C]ould I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of ‘American exceptionalism’ that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy?”

It’s a loaded question of sorts, which carries some potential consequences. If Obama endorses the concept of American exceptionalism, and explains during an overseas visit that he believes the U.S. is a uniquely special nation, above all others, he runs the risk of reinforcing the notion of American arrogance and jingoism. American exceptionalism is, after all, a favorite of the neocons, and undergirds the idea that we operate on a different level than everyone else. But if Obama rejects the concept, he might give the impression that he sees his own country as less than special or unique. His critics would pounce, insisting that to give up on American exceptionalism is to give up on America’s role as leader of the free world.

Given this, the president’s response was pretty interesting.

“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.

“Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

“And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”

Nicely done. As threading the rhetorical needle goes, Obama delivered the right response.

Michael Scherer had a very good item about this, and appreciated the president’s nuances: “While in the past the idea that America was exceptional, the shining city on a hill, was evoked as an objective description, a fact, a prediction and a course by which the ship of state could be sailed, Obama used the phrase, by contrast, in a more subjective, self-aware way, acknowledging that the fact that he held this belief was not so, well, exceptional.”