AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM REPOSSESSED… Last year, just about every Republican running for president took a shot at Barack Obama for his alleged failure to believe in the idea of American exceptionalism. The sum total of the evidence for this charge was one sentence, take out of context, in a long nuanced answer to a reporter’s question while in Europe in April of 2009 in which the president unmistakably stated his belief in American exceptionalism, but in a words that took into account the sensitivities of other nations.

Nevertheless, Newt Gingrich called Obama’s attitude “truly alarming,” while Mike Huckabee said that Obama’s worldview is “different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we’ve had…. To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” These charges were not only overheated and factually wrong but were quite obviously intended to feed the view that Obama is not a real, loyal American.

So I was delighted to see the president wisely and deftly weave the theme of American exceptionalism throughout his State of the Union address last night. He said that open, contentious political debate among people of different races, faiths and points of view is “what sets us apart as a nation.” He spoke of the need to maintain an economic leadership that “has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.” He characterized America as “the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea — the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.” He noted that the ability to tap the creativity and imagination of our people to develop cutting-edge technologies and products is “what America does better than anyone.” He went on and on like this, but the tone was not self-satisfied boasting. Rather, he said these things as a set up to a warning, that our preeminence is at risk, and as a challenge — to reform government and invest in education, infrastructure, and scientific research.

American exceptionalism is hardly a conservative idea. But it’s one of those broadly-shared American ideas — like faith, patriotism, choice — that the right has tried to make exclusively its own by taking to insane extremes, thus tempting liberals to abandon them. In his speech last night, Obama grabbed the idea back, and shrewdly used it to argue for liberal values and a center-left policy agenda. I don’t imagine conservatives are very happy about that.

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.