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Conservatives' new focus: America, the exceptional
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.