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American exceptionalism: an old idea and a new political battle

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, lips have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.

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

Is this a great country or what?

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"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.


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