The phrase 'American exceptionalism' has become toxic for many on the left who resented the Bush administration's arrogance in dealing with the international community, particularly their destructive policies meant to fulfill the neo-con dream of spreading democracy around the world at the barrel of a gun. It wasn't so long ago that criticism of the American president and of America in any way shape or form was equated with anti-Americanism and it was this concept of American exceptionalism that drove these criticisms of the left. Now that we have a Democratic president, it's interesting how suddenly it's patriotic to criticize the president and hope he fails. American exceptionalism, we hardly knew thee.
The other day, President Obama was asked if he subscribes to the notion of American exceptionalism and I agree with Arianna who raved about the president's response on This Week this morning.
He really struck just the right tone, walking a line between nationalistic pride and humility.
Steve Benen has Obama's full response:
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
"And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that 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.
"Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.
"And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."
By both embracing the concept and redefining it completely, the president at once shatters the conservative notion of American exceptionalism and renders his critics who long to lump him into the "blame America first" crowd without a leg to stand on. When you have a Democratic president express American pride with such enthusiasm, what else can a conservative head do but explode? But it is a strange time indeed because not only is the American exceptionalism crowd actively rooting for the president to fail but they are arguing against the exceptionalism of America at every turn. When they rail against unions, raising the minimum wage, imposing stricter fuel standards or capping carbon emissions, the argument is always that it will hurt business. What happened to American ingenuity and innovation and the flexibility of the marketplace? And when they claim on rightwing radio that our freedoms are being infringed and we are on the road to fascism (or Marxism, or socialism...fill in your -ism here), how fragile they think American freedom is. Their entire bluster about the greatness of America seems to actually be obscuring what is really a sense of insecurity about the weakness of America.