Notes on American Exceptionalism

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru are intelligent writers whose work is normally a credit to National Review, but they’ve gone far astray in their recent essay “An Exceptional Debate: The Obama administration’s assault on American identity.” In arguing that President Obama “has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation,” they offer the following evidence:

Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exception­alism.” (Is it just a coincidence that he reached for examples of former hegemons?)
In this respect the president reflects the mainstream sentiment of American liberals. We do not question the sincerity of his, or their, desire to better the lot of his countrymen. But modern liberal intellectuals have had a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it.

But it is misleading to offer that Obama quote as evidence that he rejects American exceptionalism when his unabridged answer is the following (emphasis added):

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.

In other words, President Obama doesn’t “all but deny” that America is an exceptional nation in that question and answer session — he does just the opposite, affirming that our core values, governing framework, and democrat practices are all exceptional, so much so that we have an “extraordinary role in leading the world”! Essayists reach for the strongest examples they can find when crafting an argument. In making the argument that the current president rejects American exceptionalism, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru offer as examples a quote that contradicts their thesis, the fact that President Obama declines to defend the Bay of Pigs, a failed invasion of a foreign country that strengthened its tyrannical leader, and the assertion that “on those occasions when Obama places himself in the con­text of American history, he identifies himself with the post-Wil­sonian tradition — with, that is, the gradual replacement of the Founders’ design. He seeks to accelerate it.”

On this last point, President Obama’s rhetoric so frequently contradicts their characterization that it is impossible to list every example. One need only look at the speech he gave at his inauguration to see the authors’ point was disproved on Obama’s first day in office. The text includes these passages:

+ 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.

+ In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

In other words, that single speech contains multiple invocations of the Founding fathers, their designs, and bold statements about how the Obama Administration must preside over their continuance — “so it must be.”

Moreover, ever since Barack Obama’s introduction to a national audience at the 2004 DNC, when he invoked The Declaration of Independence and E Pluribus Unum, he has very deliberately and repeatedly placed himself in the context of American history by arguing that his story is possible only in a nation with the Founding beliefs of America. Where did this idea come from that he identifies only with a post-Wilsonian tradition when he is constantly alluding to the promise of the Declaration, and how the realization of its truths transformed his personal history in the most profound way? It is utterly false, and proving as much is as easy as reading any number of his speeches.

Near the conclusion of their piece, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru write:

The popular revolt against Obama’s policies is a sign that Americans are not prepared to go gentle into that good night. Other factors are of course in play — most important, the weak economy — but the public is saying “No” to a rush to social democracy.
Although the conservatives, libertarians, and independents who oppose Obama’s health-care initiative may not put it in quite these terms, they sense that his project will not just increase insurance premiums but undermine what they cherish about America. Those Americans who want to keep our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay think it necessary to protect our security — but they also worry, more profoundly, that our leaders are too apologetic to serve our interests. Americans may want change, even fundamental change, but most of them would rather change our institutions than our national character.

On health care I’d much prefer free market reforms of the sort discussed here. Should the misguided Democratic bill pass into law, however, I shall not mourn the loss of what I cherish about America, seeing as how what I cherish isn’t an amalgam of Medicare, impossibly complicated state regulatory frameworks, a prescription drug benefit, and tax incentives for employer provided health plans. As for the prison at Guantanamo Bay, did I miss the moment when its operation, which commenced earlier this decade, became part of our enduring national character?

All things considered, the essay in question is unpersuasive.