The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama’s vision of an imperfect and still exceptional America

President Obama thinks America is exceptional. Just not in the way most people think.

Obama outlined his view of what makes America unique in the world in a foreign policy speech delivered at the United Nations Wednesday. Here's the key excerpt (stick with it; it's long but important):

I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within our own borders. This is true. In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri – where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.
But we welcome the scrutiny of the world – because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect. America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even a decade ago. Because we fight for our ideals, and are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short. Because we hold our leaders accountable, and insist on a free press and independent judiciary.  Because we address our differences in the open space of democracy – with respect for the rule of law; with a place for people of every race and religion; and with an unyielding belief in the ability of individual men and women to change their communities and countries for the better.

Raising Ferguson -- and the racial tensions that have followed the shooting of an African American man named Michael Brown -- in the context of a foreign policy speech is an interesting decision and speaks to how much what happened in that small town just outside of St. Louis impacted Obama and influenced his thinking about not just the U.S. but the world.

The idea of a country -- and a world -- struggling to "reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions we hold dear" is one that Obama has visited before.  In a speech in late July -- prior to Brown's shooting on August 9 -- Obama acknowledged that amid all of the unrest globally there was a "sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles."

For some, Obama's description of the United States as a country in transition, an imperfect entity caught between the ways things used to be and some indeterminate way they will be in the future is an acknowledgement of weakness (or uncertainty) that they don't believe the president should engage in.

What's fascinating, however, is that Obama -- particularly in his speech Wednesday -- cast the imperfection of America and our willingness, collectively, to address it and try to solve it as the country's greatest strength. "We welcome the scrutiny of the world," said Obama, "because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect."

In Obama's formulation what makes America unique is not that we are perfect. It's that we know we aren't.

The tension between our acknowledged imperfections and our constant striving to do better is a strain that runs through Obama's thinking about everything from how we deal with the threat of terrorism to how we deal with race relations.  We do our best with the knowledge that it won't be the best. But, in the process of trying we learn and manage to push the rock in the right direction -- even if only by a few inches or feet at a time.

It's telling then that Obama closed his speech with this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

That quote helps define how Obama views the U.S.'s evolving role in the world and its evolving sense of itself domestically. A people willing to act in the face of the certainty that no single act will solve anything.