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