American exceptionalism

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM…. The lead Politico piece of the day highlights “7 stories Barack Obama doesn’t want told.” The idea, apparently, is to identify seven media narratives that have the potential to catch on — especially if they’re picked up and repeatedly tirelessly by outlets like Politico — and undermine President Obama’s standing.

It’s not an especially enlightening list, and most of the seven are pretty predictable — the president needs more fiscal discipline; he’s too thoughtful and appreciative of nuance; his White House is too mean (“the Chicago Way”); his White House isn’t mean enough (“pushover”); he’s elevated Speaker Pelosi too much; and he’s arrogant.

Of particular interest, though, was John Harris’ observation about the president may not be enough of an “American exceptionalist.”

Politicians of both parties have embraced the idea that this country — because of its power and/or the hand of Providence — should be a singular force in the world. It would be hugely unwelcome for Obama if the perception took root that he is comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence or position in the world.

On this score, the reviews of Obama’s recent Asia trip were harsh.

His peculiar bow to the emperor of Japan was symbolic. But his lots-of-velvet, not-much-iron approach to China had substantive implications.

I don’t doubt that a variety of pundits find all of this very compelling. It’s not.

For one thing, the bow wasn’t especially “peculiar,” and no one outside beltway newsrooms seems to care. For another, the “reviews” of the Asia trip may have been “harsh,” but the reality of the trip was far more encouraging. Just as important, the bulk of the Obama agenda seems focused on helping the United States regain its influence and position as the global leader — which is the opposite of being “comfortable with a relative decline.”

As Greg Sargent explained, Harris’ assumptions about exceptionalism seem especially off-base.

There’s been a general unwillingness [among some political reporters] to acknowledge how vastly the landscape of national security politics has shifted in the wake of Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy experiments and the electorate’s resounding rejection from 2006 onward of his vision of swaggering unilateralism. Multiple polls have shown that majorities support Obama’s engagement of hostile foreign leaders…. The electorate even supported Obama’s decision to journey to Berlin and promise a new era of engagement, which was widely ridiculed as an “apology.”

Harris notes that Obama should fear a narrative holding that he is “comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence,” but this formulation, too, is revealing. Obama in 2008 explicitly rejected the notion that pragmatic global engagement, and the willingness to compromise with other countries in order to tackle common challenges, is tantamount to risking a “decline in U.S. influence.” He won resoundingly. Indeed, he was elected after insisting that it’s in America’s interests to carve out a new type of global leadership role built on a rejection of that world view.

Quite right. In fact, in April, the president was specifically asked about whether he subscribes “to the school of ‘American exceptionalism’ that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world.” Obama offered what struck me as the perfect response: “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…. 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.”

It’s not how the right perceives American exceptionalism, and it’s not how the wired-for-Republicans media perceives American exceptionalism, but it’s a thoughtful, nuanced, mature approach to the issue.

That this might be a problematic “narrative” is absurd.