The relevant excerpt:
Conor Friedersdorf rightly points out that Obama followed his statement that he believes in American exceptionalism the same way that Greeks and Brits believe in the exceptionalism of their countries with an acknowledgment that the United States has a “core set of values . . . that are exceptional.” We should have noted those words. But the fact that Obama said them, and has on other occasions also had warm words about his country, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, does not alter our judgment. It would be remarkable if any president did not say such things. What is remarkable are some of the things he has said that it is impossible to imagine any of his predecessors saying, e.g., this bit from his United Nations speech in September: “For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.”
What I don’t understand is how the fact that Obama said those words, “and has on other occasions also had warm words about his country, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence,” does not alter their judgment. After all, in their original piece, they wrote that President Obama is like liberal intellectuals in that he has a difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism. But isn’t asserting that our core values are exceptional and praising our Founding documents “a decent account” of patriotism?
Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru also wrote that “every important aspect of American exceptionalism has been under threat from President Obama and his allies in Washington.” But isn’t it in fact the case that certain aspects of American exceptionalism — like the assertion that our core values and Founding documents are exceptional — aren’t under threat at all, even if other aspects of our exceptionalism are under threat?
Finally, the authors wrote in their original piece 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.” As I pointed out, however, President Obama often identifies with the Founding documents when he places himself in the contest of American history. As I noted, “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.” I also offered a particular speech where those utterances could be found, and cited several of them.
Given all this, I don’t see how the authors can say that their judgment is not altered — perhaps their conclusion remains the same, but new arguments to justify it are required since the original arguments have been shown to be lacking.
It’s also worth returning to the new argument that the authors are making. Never mind President Obama’s rhetoric about American exceptionalism, they argue:
It would be remarkable if any president did not say such things. What is remarkable are some of the things he has said that it is impossible to imagine any of his predecessors saying, e.g., this bit from his United Nations speech in September: “For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.”
In a prior column, Mr. Lowry explained exactly why he thinks that quote is remarkable:
“For those who question the character and cause of my nation,” Obama said, “I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.” In other words, he’s the personal redeemer of a nation sunk in war crimes (we condoned torture), highhandedness (we ignored the U.N.), and hypocrisy (we promoted democracy selectively) prior to the ascension of his blessed administration.
Two points about this argument.
1) Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru may find it wrongheaded, distasteful, even unprecedented for an American president to assert that a prior administration has done abhorrent things. But even if they are correct on all counts, that hardly proves that President Obama rejects American exceptionalism, does it? Isn’t it perfectly possible to believe America has committed grave sins, to egocentrically think that one’s administration is evidence of redemption from those sins, and to also believe in every pillar of American exceptionalism? After all, no one thinks that America’s exceptionalism is owed to the Bush Administration’s policies in the War on Terrorism, so why is repudiating those policies in the strongest terms imaginable an attack on American exceptionalism?
2) But I don’t think it actually is unprecedented for an American president to criticize the country’s past actions, and to say that his administration is a corrective — to take a recent example, didn’t George W. Bush argue that in the past the United States has been too willing to work with dictators in the Middle East, made mistakes in its Iraq policy, and been insufficiently supportive of democracy there? Certainly his words against the policies of predecessors were less pointed, but they amounted to a substantive critique and the assertion that his administration would prove to be a corrective.
Again, I understand why someone might argue that President Obama is incorrect in his assessment of American shortcomings, or even that a president should never criticize his country in that way, but I don’t see how any of that bears on the larger debate about American exceptionalism, unless the assumption is that American exceptionalism means we’re incapable of ever doing abhorrent things. I don’t think Mr. Lowry or Mr. Ponnuru believes that.
Lastly, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru write (emphasis added):
Friedersdorf also questions our assessment of Obama’s agenda. He does not, for example, see how moving a hybrid public/private health-care system further toward nationalization could be a blow to America’s distinctiveness. To assume that a difference of degree cannot be important is, however, fallacious. That the health-care policies that President Obama seeks would greatly increase middle-class dependence on the federal government cannot be seriously disputed; neither can the fact that it would be a move the country in a European direction, a point none of our critics dispute.
I think that’s a fair point — insofar as the health care bill will “greatly increase middle-class dependence on the federal government,” it is a blow to America’s distinctiveness. And I reiterate my preference for the kinds of health care reforms found here. I think it would be difficult to persuasively argue that pursuing this misguided policy itself makes President Obama an enemy of American exceptionalism, however, just as I think that President’s Bush’s prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind act — though they greatly increased the role of the federal government in American life — aren’t persuasive evidence that he was an enemy of American exceptionalism.