President Obama and that 'exceptional' thing

Sunday, January 30, 2011

He didn't say it. That word: "exceptional." Barack Obama described an exceptional nation in his State of the Union address, but he studiously avoided using the word conservatives long to hear.

It's a funny thing, this focus on a single word that isn't much heard from this president but that tumbles so easily - and adamantly - from the lips of Republican contenders for his title.

We're going to be hearing it a lot in the coming months as Republicans try to out-exceptionalize each other for the presidential nomination. Exhausted already?

The exceptional issue may be political, but it isn't only that. The idea lies smack at the heart of how Americans view themselves, and the role of government in their lives and in the broader world. Is America exceptional or isn't she? Is there something about this country that makes us unique in the world?

Of course there is, and Obama has frequently acknowledged those things, including in the State of the Union. But he seems to avoid the word because, among other possible reasons, it is fraught with layers of meaning and because, to some minds, there's always the possibility he doesn't quite believe it. A December poll (USA Today-Gallup) found that 37 percent of Americans don't think Obama believes that the "U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world."

This nevertheless leaves a majority - 58 percent - who do think he believes it, compared with 86 percent who thought Ronald Reagan did, followed by Bill Clinton (77) and George W. Bush (74).

On the right, the word "exceptional" - or "exceptionalism" - lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It's the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. To many on the left, it has become birther code for "he's not one of us."

Between left and right, however, are those who merely want affirmation that all is right with the world. Most important, they want assurance that the president shares their values. So why won't Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?

I asked House Speaker John Boehner that question in a recent interview, curious to see how he'd explain the chasm between Democrats who see no need to talk of exceptionalism and Republicans who consider it crucial to their national identity.

Boehner said that either "the left" seems afraid of the word or, perhaps, they don't believe it. This caused a small tempest of protest in some quarters.

Obama did indeed speak of America's uniqueness, even recognizing Boehner, who grew up without privilege to become the third-most powerful person in government, as an exemplar of the American dream.

Do we make too much of a single word?

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