Obama Has Mentioned 'American Exceptionalism' More Than Bush

Taking exception with the right's latest bizarre symbolic fixation.

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Only one sitting president in the last 82 years has publicly uttered the magical phrase “American exceptionalism”--care to guess who it is? Ronald Reagan, he of the “shining city on a hill?” George W. Bush, who closed his speeches by asking that “God continue to bless” America? Nope. The only president to publicly discuss (and for that matter embrace) “American exceptionalism” is Barack Obama.

This would be the same president, of course, who is subject to a steadily rising stream of suspicion because of his supposed refusal to give voice sufficient voice to his love of country.

[ See photos of Reagan.]

If you’re a casual observer of politics you might a bit confused at this point. Did Obama not just give a State of the Union address, you might ask, in which he talked about the things that “set us apart as a nation”? Did he not describe America as “not just a place on a map, but the light to the world”? It certainly sounds like a pretty exceptional place. { See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Well except for the fact that he didn’t use the word “exceptional,” and the right has been working itself into a froth over the president’s refusal to use that specific term. See, for example, the exchange between conservative columnist/CNN host Kathleen Parker and House Speaker John Boehner who complained after the State of the Union about the word being absent. (“They” don’t understand, Boehner groused, that “the country was built on an idea,” apparently having missed the president’s description of the United States as “the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea.”)

Parker continued on the same theme in her column on Sunday.

Is there something about this country that makes us unique in this world?
Of course there is, and Obama has frequently acknowledged those things, including the State of the Union. But he seems to avoid the word.

Which brings us back to Obama’s predecessors. UC Santa Barbara’s excellent American Presidency Project has put the public papers of the presidents online, searchable, from 1929 onward. You could go and look for yourself, but I’ve already done the legwork for you. The result “American exceptionalism” returns is from Obama’s April 4, 2009 press conference in Strasbourg, France. Asked about “American exceptionalism,” Obama responded:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I am 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.

You can search for “exceptional” and get lots of results. For example Obama used the word in relation to both Arlen Specter and Sonia Sotomayor. George W. Bush used it to describe Harriet Miers, twice. As close as Bush comes to talking about “American exceptionalism” was a brief reference to the country’s “ exceptional character.” Clinton talked about America’s “ exceptional place in human history." But only Obama among the modern presidents has talked about “American excpetionalism.”

So for those of you keeping track at home, Obama has publicly expressd a belief in "American exceptionalism" while George W. Bush used the e-word more often to describe his flop of a Supreme Court nominee than to describe the good old U.S. of A.

Which brings us back to Kathleen Parker.

On the right, the word exceptional--or exceptionalism--lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It’s the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. … So why won’t Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?

Why? Well let’s start that he has uttered it; he has uttered it at least as much as his hyperpatriotic predecessor; he has embraced the concept more explicitly than said predecessor. And the resulting arias have to do with proving his patriotism and birth place. [ See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

Then there’s the fact that Obama is presumably more interested in substance (as in all the encomiums he did toss to the United States in his State of the Union) than in the latest symbolic fixations of the right.

Which raises the question: Why is an ordinarily rational columnist like Parker writing about such nonsense? As Steve Benen notes, Parker’s observation that “exceptional” has become a conservative litmus test

...suggests use of the word "exceptionalism" is now a lazy trope, used by politicians to simply appear patriotic.

But instead of pushing back against this nonsense, and explaining why the true test of patriotism goes beyond tired buzz-words, Parker effectively does the opposite.

Stay tuned. As the 2012 GOP presidential race gears up we’ll hear a lot more about exceptionalism.