The Exceptionalism Myth Goes Mainstream

by Jonathan Chait | August 11, 2011

Republicans have endlessly recirculated the completely misleading talking point that President Obama in 2009 spoke dismissively about American exceptionalism. Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach, in a story about American decline, seems to have read the talking points and repeated the myth without bothering to check the context:

There is also a rash of books from Republican politicians that include attacks on President Obama, accusing him of not believing in “American exceptionalism, ” the idea that the United States is destined, either through constitutional genius, geography, culture, divine providence or some combination thereof, to play a unique and outsized role in human civilization. ...
When asked during a trip abroad in 2009 whether he believed in American exceptionalism, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This only drew more criticism from Republicans.
Since then, Obama has been more emphatic in speaking about America’s special role in the world.

This is a smear. In the comments, Obama defended American exceptionalism. The passage quoted by Achenbach, and many Republicans, is the throat-clearing caveat at the beginning of his answer, in which he describes the perspective of his critics before proceeding to disagree with it.

The full remarks:

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.

What you see here is a common Obama rhetorical technique. You could apply the Republican method to nearly any Obama statement, and simply take out of context the part where he describes the opposing view to make it sound as if he believes the opposite of what he actually does. It's a remarkable testament to the power of dogged, repetitive spin that the GOP has managed to get mainstream newspapers to start printing this utterly dishonest interpretation as fact.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/93495/the-exceptionalism-myth-goes-mainstream