Barack Obama Reclaims American Exceptionalism
In the first few months after Barack Obama was elected president, I was often reminded of the wonderful newness of it all. I’d brush my teeth, and all of a sudden my brain would go “Dude, the president is black.” Or I’d order coffee and remember, “His name is Barack HUSSEIN Obama” (the emphasis on Hussein more ecstatic than Fox News.)
And yet, at this point Obama’s star has come down to earth. Once beheld as a transformative figure that could transcend political, racial and generational divides, the president now has the misfortune of being different enough to rankle his opponents and familiar enough to breed contempt among his supporters. This is, of course, the ultimate fate of all who hold public office.
So it was a gratifying experience to watch the president’s speech at Selma, as the confluence of the cause for commemoration and the weight of Obama’s own biography made the moment obviously special. Even more gratifying was Obama’s determination to answer recent critics who have accused him of being unpatriotic.
The issue that has tripped the president up most is patriotism, for a variety of factors from his race to his temperament. In his first campaign for president, he caught flack for refusing to wear a flag pin because he saw it as an empty symbol of patriotism. In 2009, he further pissed off nativists by saying that he believed in American exceptionalism, but just as he suspected “that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In both cases Obama was clearly giving a truthful answer, though he was forced to retreat when such positions became untenable. Since then the president has endured everything from the fever swamp of birtherism to continued whispers that he is a Muslim/Communist/the bad guy from D2: The Mighty Ducks.
In his speech on Saturday, President Obama sought to redefine patriotism away from blind allegiance to flag and country and toward the values expressed by the determined souls who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge fifty years ago. Speaking of the marchers that day, the president asked:
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
Certainly, a love of country inspired by an abiding faith in its truest ideals, rather than geopolitical dick-waving, is a better and more noble patriotism. Watching the speech, I was moved by the president’s appeal to the diverse elements that make We The People possible. And yet a part of me can’t help but be sad that our political moment won’t allow for the conversation that President Obama wanted us to have back in 2008. The attempt to reclaim what makes us exceptional is important, but the harder work would be examining why we (or any people, for that matter) feel the need to proclaim our exceptional nature.
One powerful part of the president’s speech was his invocation of the universality of the ideals we cherish, rather than their essential Americaness:
Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down a wall. Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid. Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule. From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.
The virtue of America is not that we are the world’s oldest democracy, but that the success of our ideals speaks to a yearning in hearts across the world. If we understand our freedom to be an inherent quality of our people rather than a manifestation of truths we hold to be self-evident, we miss an opportunity to be a force for good. Clinging to exceptionalism prevents us from seeing ourselves in others. Stephen Walt, writing for Foreign Policy, lamented that our
unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear weapons, conformity with international law, or America’s tendency to condemn the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.
The president was right to refute his critics, and to reclaim the true meaning of patriotism. I hope that one day we will be ready to celebrate what brings us closer to the world rather than what sets us apart.