American exceptionalism: an old idea and a new political battle

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 12:10 AM

Is this a great country or what?

"American exceptionalism" is a phrase that, until recently, was rarely heard outside the confines of think tanks, opinion journals and university history departments.

But with Republicans and tea party activists accusing President Obama and the Democrats of turning the country toward socialism, the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world's other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

"This reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney writes in his campaign setup book, "No Apology: The Case For American Greatness."

On Monday, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is also considering a White House bid, is scheduled to address the Detroit Economic Club on "Restoring American Exceptionalism: A Vision for Economic Growth and Prosperity."

For former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the concept is a frequent theme in her speeches, Facebook postings, tweets and appearances on Fox News Channel. Her just-published book, "America by Heart," has a chapter titled "America the Exceptional."

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, contends in his speeches that Obama's views on the subject are "truly alarming."

In an interview in August with Politico, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee went so far as to declare of Obama: "His worldview is dramatically 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."

And last week, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, told a group of College Republicans at American University: "Don't kid yourself with the lie. America is exceptional, and Americans are concerned that there are a group of people in Washington who don't believe that any more."

Some, however, wonder whether Obama's conservative critics are sounding an alarm about the United States' place in the world - or making an insidious suggestion about the president himself.

With a more intellectual sheen than the false assertions that Obama is secretly a Muslim or that he was born in Kenya, an argument over American exceptionalism "is a respectable way of raising the question of whether Obama is one of us," said William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Much of this criticism harkens back to a single comment that Obama made at a news conference a year and a half ago in Strasbourg, France, during his first trip overseas as president.

Obama was asked by Financial Times correspondent Ed Luce whether he subscribes, as his predecessors did, "to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world."

The president's answer began: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

That may have been a nod to the fact that many abroad hear talk of American exceptionalism as worrisome jingoism. But it provided ammunition for Palin and other Republican critics.

"Maybe President Obama grew up around coaches who insisted that all the players receive participation 'trophies' at the end of the season and where no score was kept in youth soccer games for fear of offending someone," she wrote in her book. " . . . when President Obama insists that all countries are exceptional, he's saying that none is, least of all the country he leads."

At a minimum, Obama's comment reflected "casual staff work. Let's put it that way," said James Q. Wilson, an influential conservative thinker who has written extensively about American exceptionalism. "He did not understand how Americans feel about this."

But while the opening sentence of Obama's answer sounded dismissive, the president's full statement was more complex than that - and was indeed an affirmation of American exceptionalism, although arguably a qualified one.

In addition to the world's largest economy and its mightiest military, Obama said, "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."

He added: "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

Obama was placing the concept in the context of his view that the United States must enter what he has called "a new era of engagement."

His Republican critics do have a point, Galston said: Democrats have become more squeamish about the idea of exceptionalism in the wake of the George W. Bush years, when spreading American values was used as a justification for unilateral action on the world stage.

"For many liberal Democrats, George W. Bush made the world unsafe for the vigorous assertion of American exceptionalism," Galston said.

But while Obama's statement - made on foreign soil - was about how the idea applies to this country's global role, the concept of exceptionalism also speaks to Americans' beliefs about the size, role and scope of their own government.

"The nation's ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire," wrote the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the leading scholars of the subject.

Indeed, exceptionalism has often been employed to explain "why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party," Lipset wrote.

The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character.

It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: "God has granted America a special role in human history."

Gingrich says Obama fails to understand that "American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence," and that it is a term "which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God."

But White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer noted that Obama has declared exactly that on many occasions - including in his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the moment that first brought the then-Illinois state senator to national attention.

"Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago," Obama told the delegates in Boston. " 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' That is the true genius of America."

Pfeiffer contended that the new criticism of Obama on the subject says more about the race for the Republican presidential nomination than anything else.

The GOP contenders know that this kind of argument - with its suggestion that Obama is undermining American values - was "a huge piece of what Sarah Palin did in 2008," Pfeiffer said. "They want a little bit of Sarah Palin magic, because she has a lot of enthusiasm and support among the base."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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