The Washington Post

American exceptionalism, explained

From the right, President Obama has often been attacked for failing to embrace the concept of “American exceptionalism.” And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin contends that Obama has gone overboard with it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted President Obama at the G20 Summit  in St. Petersburg last week.  (Getty Images)

Which raises the question: What is American exceptionalism, anyway?

It is actually an old idea, one that until recently was rarely talked about outside of think tanks and academia. But in the Obama era, American exceptionalism has opened up a new political battlefront.

According to the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, who was considered one of the foremost authorities on the subject, America’s unique ideology "can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire."

American exceptionalism has been a subject of fascination, going as far back as the 19th century, and particularly among Marxists. The concept of exceptionalism was used to explain “why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party,” Lipset wrote.

On his first overseas trip as president in 2009, Obama was asked during a news conference whether he subscribed to American exceptionalism.

The first part of his answer has given ammunition to many of his critics on the right. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," Obama said.

Quoted far less often is the rest of his answer. It was an affirmation of exceptionalism, though arguably a redefinition of the concept. In addition to the world's largest economy and 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.... 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."

In his nationally televised speech on Syria Tuesday night, Obama turned to American exceptionalism as a call to action for an endeavor in which this country stands isolated in the world.

“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “ But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.” He added: "That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Skeptics wrote off that passage of his speech as desperate and opportunistic.

Obama employed American exceptionalism as “a useful rhetorical tool to help him escape the trap that he is in, and the trap is one of his own making,” said conservative columnist Peter Wehner, a former George W. Bush White House official who is now a a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

But others saw Obama’s words as evidence that being president has given him -- as it has everyone who has sat in the Oval Office -- a different perspective on America’s unique role in the world.

“I sat up a little straighter in my seat when he said it, because the contrast with his dismissal of American exceptionalism in the fall of 2009 was stark,” said William A. Galston, who was a top adviser to President Bill Clinton and who now is a senior fellow at the left-of-center Brookings Institution.

“I think he probably understands better than he did four years and eight months ago that collective action is a lot easier to talk about than bring about,” added Galston. “We’re exceptional in the sense that only we have the power to do what is necessary. … I think he understands that now, and Syria has brought that into high relief for him.”

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.