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Posted at 04:21 PM ET, 08/08/2011

President Obama’s first fireside chat — unexceptional exceptionalism


Next time, try to get the room that doesn’t include a “fireside” for your chat. (Getty Images)
President Obama, a few notes on the economy speech today, since I have a sinking feeling it might not be your last:

1) When trying to inspire confidence that we are not headed into another Great Depression, a good tactic is to not deliver your chat at a fireside. It sends the wrong message. “President Obama delivers fireside chat” is just — not quite where we hoped we were, economically. It gives us the vague desire to start hoarding bits of tin.

2) You do realize that no matter how many times you say “No matter what some agency may say, we always have been and always will be a Triple-A country” that doesn’t make it true?

Does this work for Malia and Sasha? “No matter what your teacher may say, you always have been and always will be a straight-A student. I have here a signed letter from Warren Buffett saying that if it were possibly to give you a 120 on that test, he would give it to you unreservedly. And Warren Buffett knows what's what.”

3) You can’t start a speech by saying that the problem America has is “a lack of political will in Washington” and end the speech by saying that the great thing about America is that “we've always not just had the capacity but the will to act.”

The bad news is that no one in Washington is capable of solving these problems, because Washington is broken!

“The good news is that our problems are imminently solvable!”

It was as though the second half of the speech and the first half of the speech were written as a group project by two collaborators who mistrusted each other and decided not to show each other their drafts. Although that is, I hear, how most legislation happens these days.

4) “For all of the challenges we face, we continue to have the best universities, some of the most productive workers, the most innovative companies, the most adventurous entrepreneurs on earth,” you said. That’s true, kind of, as long as you’re willing to consider “millions of robots” productive workers.

This speech had the strange whiff of desperation that has crept increasingly into President Obama’s communications. It is the sort of speech that you get at 3 a.m. from someone you thought you had succeeded in breaking up with. “But our universities are still the best! And we are very entrepreneurial! And Warren Buffett believes in us!” followed by inarticulate sobbing and the sound of someone falling off a table. It sounds like a good, strong, compelling case — not at all grasping at straws — until you say it out loud.

All in all, good work.

But a final note: All this came perilously close to sounding like American Exceptionalism 2.0. It’s not something you hear President Obama talk about very often. He never uses the word “exceptionalism. ”

But that’s what his conclusion boiled down to.

Best schools in the world — well, not exactly.

Best entrepreneurs in the world — well, maybe.

Most productive workers in the world — sure, if you don’t check our browser histories.

But we are still the best — the best at being American! What this means often comes into question. It’s Unexceptional Exceptionalism, the idea that we are the best Simply Because We Are.

The term “exceptionalism” used to come freighted with something else — the idea that we were a sort of city on a hill with a unique, if not uniquely efficient, system of government, a set of common ideals and a population willing to strive for great things.

But in the course of the speech, Obama listed a bit toward redefining “best” to mean “Whatever America Happens To Be At The Time.” This only goes so far, as the speech indicated. “We are the best moderately wealthy, non-landlocked nation in the Western Hemisphere!” we’ll be saying, in a few years, if the redefinition continues. It’s the same kind of tautological praise for Uniqueness and Specialdom that we lavish on children with failing test scores.

But there was a bit of hope. Along with praising our dubiously excellent universities and dubiously marvelous workers, Obama noted that we are different in ways that encompass more than a perpetually divided and recalcitrant Washington, united by a set of common beliefs and even a shared will.

Just maybe not in Washington.

By  |  04:21 PM ET, 08/08/2011

Tags:  Obama, economy, oy

 
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