Obama and American exceptionalism

How Obama has used his presidency to redefine ‘American exceptionalism’

Obama’s new patriotism

Published on June 3, 2015

NO ONE, LEAST OF ALL PRESIDENT OBAMA, had expected the conversation to take the turn that it did.

The president, his speechwriter and a few top aides were supposed to be discussing Obama’s upcoming speech in Selma, Ala., in early March. Instead, they were talking about controversial comments made by former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani a few days earlier.

Above: Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“I know this is a horrible thing to say,” Giuliani told a small group of Republican donors, “but I do not believe that the president loves America. . . . He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”

Obama's remarks in Selma

Obama’s Chief Speechwriter Cody Keenan provided early drafts of the President's address in Selma, complete with Obama's handwritten notes. Click on the photo above to see parts of these drafts and to read the full transcript of the speech. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Obama was headed to Selma in a little more than a week for the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march, in which Alabama state troopers brutally beat protesters demanding the right to vote. Giuliani’s remarks had inadvertently goaded Obama into delivering a speech that would crystallize one of the most provocative ideas of his presidency.

“How do we think about the idea of America?” Obama asked, according to notes taken by his speechwriter. That first question led to others. What made the country that Obama had led, and sometimes criticized, exceptional? Did the president’s race, upbringing and time overseas provide a different view of what it meant to love America?

Today, just about every Republican presidential candidate is condemning Obama for a failure to grasp America’s exceptional nature. They say he’s too quick to criticize the country for its failings at home. When it comes to the exercise of American power overseas, they contend that he’s too cautious, too skeptical and insufficiently convinced of America’s unmatched role as a force for good.

Obama has “demonstrated a disregard for our moral purpose that at times flirted with disdain,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a May speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The criticism reflects, in part, Obama’s effort in the seventh year of his presidency to articulate a new and radical form of American exceptionalism. While American exceptionalism in recent decades has centered around the exercise of American power and influence in the world, Obama’s conception is more inwardly focused. It’s a patriotism that embraces the darker moments in American history and celebrates the ability of the unsung and the outsiders to challenge the country’s elite and force change.

84% of people agree with the statement “I would rather be a citizen of America than of any other country in the world.”

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It’s a view that one senior White House official said is better suited to a country whose population is growing browner and more accepting of gays and lesbians.

“When American history is told by the winners, by white people who were in charge, it looks one way,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former senior State Department official in the Obama administration. “When American history is told by people who are every bit as patriotic, but who saw a different side, of course it is going to change.”

How politicians talk about patriotism

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Obama in 2011: America as a world leader Before big military operations, such as the airstrikes in Libya, Obama often talked about America’s exceptional nature in ways that echoed previous presidents.

Obama has since his first days in the White House seemed to be searching for an American exceptionalism that felt true to his life experience. As a new president, he dismissed the very idea, noting that Greeks and the Brits think their countries are special, too. Five years later, and a little grayer, Obama summed up his feelings on the subject differently. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” he told graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.

He has talked about American exceptionalism in big moments, such as his second inaugural address, his last State of the Union speech and his prime-time remarks to the nation on Syria. He has discussed it in smaller settings: at a commencement speech in South Dakota, an immigration rally in Nevada and an Iftar dinner for Muslim Americans in the White House.

His view, though, would come together most completely in the 48 hours leading up to his Selma speech. Obama and his chief speechwriter cycled through five drafts of the address during those two days, each of which the president marked up in his neat cursive. Much of Obama’s work on the speech took place in his private residence after long days focused on the daily grind of governing. In at least one instance, he ad-libbed a change while standing at the foot of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The process began in late February with the Oval Office meeting. Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Obama’s top communications aides filed into the room, where Obama was waiting. Cody Keenan, the president’s chief speechwriter, had prepared for the meeting by reading civil rights historian Taylor Branch and watching videos of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other Bloody Sunday marchers. “We were trying to figure out a way to make it fresh and original,” he said of the speech, “to put a little grit in the gears.”

Keenan mentioned Giuliani’s remarks and the possibility of a speech about patriotism. Obama began describing his view of America in fragments that his speechwriter typed into his laptop: “This dynamic, evolving, pressing, expanding, self-critical experiment,” the president said. “. . . An America that’s chronically dissatisfied with itself, because embedded in our DNA is this striving, aspirational quality to be even better. . . . That’s what has driven progress for everybody. Black, white, men, women, gay, straight, everybody.”

The president kept talking. Keenan kept typing. The conversation shifted back to Selma, the savage beatings that marchers had endured 50 years earlier and the change their sacrifices had compelled.

“What Selma does better than perhaps any other moment in our history is to vindicate the faith of our founders; to vindicate the idea that ordinary folks — not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege or certain religious belief — are able to shape the destiny of their nation,” Obama said. “You can’t get more American than that. This is the most American of ideas. The most American of moments.”

This was the speech that Obama wanted to deliver.

President Obama works on a speech with Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan and Senior Presidential Speechwriter David Litt in the Oval Office. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE

No American president has talked about American exceptionalism more often and in more varied ways than Obama. As an Illinois state legislator, young U.S. senator and presidential candidate, he spoke about it most frequently through the prism of his own remarkable story. His father had grown up in Kenya herding goats. His wife carried “blood of slaves and slave owners,” he noted during his first presidential campaign. He had brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews of every race and many religions, scattered across continents.

His life was proof of America’s exceptional nature. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” he said in Chicago’s Grant Park in 2008 on the night he won the presidency.

How politicians talk about patriotism

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Obama in 2008: His American storyInitially Obama spoke about American exceptionalism through the prism of his own remarkable story.

Overseas, Obama’s election was hailed as historic; his thumbnail biography became a basis for his administration’s initial, and in retrospect overly hopeful, outreach to the Muslim world.

“He represented what people around the world loved about America,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “It wasn’t just Barack Obama. People loved that America could elect a man named Barack Obama as president. Even if they had become ambivalent about America and opposed to our policies, that’s the America they wanted to exist.”

In time, Obama’s personal story would grow familiar. The president, pressed by world events and the weight of his role as commander in chief, began to talk about America’s exceptional nature in ways that echoed previous presidents.

In Libya, many of his top advisers, including his defense secretary, urged him not to use the U.S. military to protect citizens from attacks by forces loyal to dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The United States didn’t need another war in a country of only peripheral interest. Obama overruled them, citing America’s “indispensable” role.

“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries,” he said in a speech shortly after the bombing began. “The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Obama adopted a more modest and mournful tone two years later when another dictator, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, used poison gas on his own people. “The burdens of leadership are often heavy,” the president said. Last fall, he spoke again of America’s “enduring burden” when launching the first airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

The new language reflected the president’s reluctance to return U.S. forces to a war that he thought he had ended and his concern about the limits of American power to fix a region that was being ripped apart by bad governments, deprived populations and radical religious movements. “The core fact — and this is a fact — is that military power alone will not heal what has been unleashed,” said Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. “That’s not humility. It’s pragmatism.”

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The Selma speech offered yet another iteration on the idea of American exceptionalism. Keenan delivered the first draft of the speech two days prior to the Saturday address. One of the last heavy snows of the season had shut down Washington, canceling several of the president’s meetings and giving him some extra time to work on the draft. Keenan and the president talked twice that day, once in the Oval Office and again around midnight on the phone.

The president delivered his first instructions in those conversations. The initial draft was strong and the thesis “on point,” Obama said, but he wanted a bigger and more ambitious speech. “You took a half swing on this,” he told his speechwriter. “Take a full swing.”

He asked Keenan to add some Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. “I’m big and full of contradictions,” the president said, paraphrasing Whitman’s epic poem “Song of Myself.” “This country is changing every day. I’m going places no one has ever been. I’m asking, why not?”

The American exceptionalism he was describing was no longer rooted in his story, but in American literature and history.

How politicians talk about patriotism

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Reagan in 1989: What it means to be AmericanRonald Reagan’s 1989 City on a Hill speech described his vision of American exceptionalism. It was an America nearly without flaw.

Its essence amounted to a rebuttal of Ronald Reagan’s famous “City on a Hill” speech, delivered in the last days of his presidency. Like Obama, Reagan took office at a time of economic uncertainty at home and growing doubts about American influence overseas. Eight years later, Reagan sketched a vision of an America that was nearly without flaw.

His nationally televised speech opened with the story of a Vietnamese boat person who had flagged down a Navy vessel in the South China Sea several years earlier. “Hello, American sailor,” the refugee cried out to his rescuer. “Hello, freedom man!”

In Reagan’s retelling, the Vietnam War, one of the most tragic and divisive events in American history, was transformed into an uplifting allegory. “That’s what it was to be an American in the 1980s,” Reagan said. America’s democracy and its freedoms, under assault during the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s, had been restored, Reagan said. His challenge to the country was to protect these “rare” and “fragile” gifts.

Obama pressed a different view. He began dictating thoughts for the speech’s closing section, which Keenan scribbled on the back of his first draft.

“Those who only understand exceptionalism as preserving the past; who deny our faults or inequality; who say love it or leave it; those are the people who are afraid,” Obama said, according to Keenan’s notes. “Those are the people who think America is some fragile thing.”

In other major speeches, such as his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Obama asked his speechwriters to prepare briefing books with the writings of people he admired: Gandhi, King, Niebuhr, Churchill. He didn’t need such help for his Selma address. Obama had been wrestling with the ideas in the speech for much of his life: as a black teenager in Hawaii, as a community organizer, as a law professor and as president.

Obama told Keenan that he wanted to end the speech with a list of people who exemplified the spirit of restless and sometimes disruptive change described in the draft — essentially a new litany of American saints. Keenan and Rhodes, who had helped write most of the president’s foreign policy addresses, came up with about 50: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea, Fannie Lou Hamer, Jackie Robinson, Holocaust survivors, the slaves who built the White House and immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande.

Obama added the Lost Boys of Sudan and “the cowboys and ranch hands who had opened the West.” He and Keenan worked through four more drafts. Some of Obama’s additions, written in longhand in the margins, came while he was flying to an event in South Carolina. Others were made late at night in the White House residence.

He wanted a speech that felt as consequential as Reagan’s farewell. “Even today we continue to have debates about what it means to love this country, to be a true patriot,” Obama wrote on one of the earlier drafts. “But what greater expression of faith in the American idea; what greater form of patriotism is there than to believe that America is not yet finished; that it’s strong enough to be self critical; that each generation can look upon its imperfections and say we can do better.”

Later he added language echoing Lyndon Johnson’s famous address, delivered just eight days after the Bloody Sunday beatings. Speaking before a joint session of Congress, Johnson had said: “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox.”

In Obama’s rendering it became “there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny is decided.” His list of battles included “Concord and Lexington, Appomattox and Gettysburg.” Keenan looked at the president’s handwritten note and noticed that he had scrambled the order and added an extra Civil War battle.

“He was probably just doing it off memory,” Keenan guessed.

President Barack Obama, center, holds hands with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., left, and Amelia Boynton Robinson, right, as they walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

A SPEECH IN SELMA

The presidential limousine crested the hill at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, revealing a crowd of more than 40,000 filling the streets of Selma’s dilapidated downtown, scarcely changed from 50 years earlier.

Aides could tell that Obama, a former law professor who enjoys making a good argument, was eager to give the speech. Even on the plane ride to Alabama, he was still making tweaks to the fifth draft.

Now it was time to deliver. Flanked by his wife, former president George W. Bush and John Lewis, a man the president described as “one of my heroes,” Obama began talking. He described Selma as “a contest to determine the true meaning of America,” ad-libbing the word “true” from the podium.

As he spoke, his voice grew louder, his tone became more insistent.

“What could be more American than what happened in this place?” Obama asked. “What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?”

The normally staid president’s voice caught with emotion as he spoke of Jackie Robinson “enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head and stealing home in the World Series anyway.” Obama had added the references to “spiked cleats” and pitches thrown at Robinson’s head on the plane to Alabama that morning.

“That’s what America is,” Obama continued, now rising up on the balls of his feet and pointing to the crowd for emphasis. “Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.

“We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past,” he said to cheers. “We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing.”

The weeks leading up to the Selma speech had been rough ones for Obama. Just four days earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had, at the invitation of Republicans, addressed a joint meeting of Congress to disparage the administration’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The White House considered the speech a serious breach of protocol designed to undermine the president.

Around the same time, Obama and his top national security aides were debating whether to lift an arms freeze against Egypt that he had imposed after the military toppled the country’s elected government. Although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi hadn’t let up in his brutal crackdown on foes, the United States needed Egypt’s help in a region that was growing increasingly chaotic and dangerous. Eventually, the U.S. would give Sissi his full complement of fighter jets, tanks and attack helicopters.

How politicians talk about patriotism

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Obama in 2015: Patriotism in SelmaHe expressed his view of an America that’s self-critical and constantly striving for perfection most clearly and completely at Selma.

“Most days you come in and it’s a grind,” said Rhodes, who has worked for Obama for his entire presidency. “You’re dealing with the thing that’s on top of you that particular day.”

The speech at Selma was different. The president seemed to “fill his suit,” said one senior administration official who attended the speech. Rhodes watched from home on television. “It felt like that’s the person we all went to work for in 2008,” he said.

Now the question is whether Obama has actually changed the way the country understands American exceptionalism. Already, his view is being questioned by Republicans who have sought to make it an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), in a speech declaring his intention to run for president, described an “American exceptionalism that has made this nation a clarion voice for freedom in the world, a shining city on a hill.”

He worried that under Obama that vision is “slipping away from our hands.”

In his first big foreign policy address, Jeb Bush spoke of the central role that American leadership has played since World War II in helping hundreds of millions of people escape poverty and repression. “Only our exceptional country can make that claim,” he said. “I have doubts whether this administration believes that American power is such a force.”

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On the flight home from Alabama, Obama mentioned that he was impressed that George W. Bush and his wife had come to Selma. He was happy that his teenage daughters were there too, he said. His advisers noticed that he looked drained.

“I’ve been doing a lot of talking,” Obama told his press secretary.

Obama is a president especially attuned to the transformative power of a good speech. He was a relatively inexperienced state legislator and U.S. Senate candidate in 2004 when his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention made him a national political star. Just four years later he was elected president. “He’s a perfectionist about his speeches,” Rhodes said. Usually, he wishes he could have had just a few more days to work on the argument or sharpen the prose.

The Selma speech was different. Obama had been working through the ideas in it for the scope of his presidency. This time, he told his top aides, there was nothing he would have gone back and changed. This time, he said, he had shared exactly what he wanted to say.

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