In all the brouhaha surrounding Obama’s statements yesterday preemptively criticizing the Supreme Court, these completely unrelated remarks of his passed relatively unnoticed:
Responding to Romney’s campaign trail claims that American influence has declined during the Obama administration and that the president “doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” the president noted that he emerged on the national stage with a speech on the issue at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. More broadly, he said, “my entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.”
For Obama, it all comes down to “me, me, me,” doesn’t it?
And by the way, his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention started with a long portion about himself and his life story, too. At least he’s consistent. But once he got past his personal story, Obama’s 2004 speech did contain a paean to the blessings of liberty and equal opportunity in America, certainly part of what goes into the idea of American exceptionalism.
As to whether Obama really does have a different understanding of American exceptionalism—or even believes in it at all—in the international sense (which was, after all, the sense to which Romney seemed to be referring), these 2009 remarks are (at least as far as I know) Obama’s fullest statement on the subject.
Here’s the relevant excerpt. It’s Obama’s first sentence that’s usually quoted, but I think it’s fairer (and more interesting) to read the full version:
[Question]: Thank you, Mr. President. In the context of all the multilateral activity that’s been going on this week — the G20, here at NATO — and your evident enthusiasm for multilateral frameworks, to work through multilateral frameworks, could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it?
[Answer] PRESIDENT OBAMA: 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.
As usual, Obama straddles the line. Whether you believe him or not, he does pay at least lip service to the idea of American exceptionalism when he says, “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.” It may not be Reagan’s shining city on a hill—in fact, it’s not Reagan’s shining city on a hill—but it’s not a complete rejection of the idea of American exceptionalism, either.
Of course, the statement of Obama’s also contains many qualifications about the importance of other countries and working with them, and how the American notion of American exceptionalism isn’t so exceptional (“the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”)—a sort of exceptionalist relativism. So Romney’s remarks may indeed be correct, that Obama “doesn’t have the same feelings” about American exceptionalism that “we do”—especially if the “we” involved is “Republicans.”
By the way, I think Obama’s two choices of other nations that believe in their own exceptionalism was interesting. Both Britain and Greece were exceptional in the past, but no longer. Greece was the ancient cradle of democracy and Britain the more recent cradle of liberty, from which some of our ideas have come. So one wonders if Obama also sees us as a country whose exceptional days are starting to be over, just as Romney suggested he does.