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American Exceptionalism–And An ‘Exceptional’ President

Obama may be the first U.S. president to lack faith in our special history, our special spirit and our special mission in the world.

For nearly four centuries, we as a people have believed that America has a special and unique role to play in the world. Here is a land of new beginnings and new promise, not merely one nation among others. But we have to ask: Do our leaders still believe this?

Americans have believed in American exceptionalism since John Winthrop wrote 380 years ago that America would be a “city on a hill,” shining for all the world to see. When de Tocqueville visited the young United States in the 1830s, he concluded that we were a “unique” nation. He pointed to the truly democratic nature of our government and society and the opportunities America provided to its immigrants at that time.

Later, historian Frederick Jackson Turner set forth the thesis that America’s uniqueness stems from its spirit developed on the Western frontier. And after World War II and during the Cold War era, America served as the symbol of and protector of freedom and democracy for the whole world.

But in a new era without an American frontier or even a Cold War or the Apollo moon program, do our leaders believe that America has retained its unique American spirit and destiny? And what are the consequences for our nation if they do not?

This idea of American exceptionalism is so fundamental to our identity as a nation that even President Obama had to address it. At the NATO Summit in Strasbourg, France, in 2009 President 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.” But despite his stated belief in our uniqueness, his implication here is that our national self-confidence will not protect us from decline–just as similar beliefs in national destiny did not protect Britain and Greece. Why didn’t the president use China or India as a more positive example?

And let’s look at the president’s deeds, not just his words. President Obama favors global summits in which we participate humbly among large groups of the world’s nations. He has embraced meetings of the G-20 group of countries, including China and Russia, as a more “global” replacement for the G-7 meetings of the seven largest industrial democracies. He also embraces global, rather than national, solutions to the current economic crisis. European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet recently paid a visit to Washington to call for regulation of financial services across national boundaries. Is global regulation or even global taxation as some Europeans have proposed, on the president’s agenda?

How far we have come in such a short time! Where is President Truman’s belief that “America was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand”? Where is John F. Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address, full of possibility and of an unshakable belief in America’s unique role in leading the world? Both, it should be noted, were Democrats: The belief in American exceptionalism has, until recently, been truly bipartisan.

President Obama may be the first American president to lack faith in our special history, our special spirit and our special mission in the world. This difference alone makes Barack Obama an exceptional president. He is exceptional in the literal meaning of that term–an exception because of his views on America’s limited role in the world. Thankfully, millions of ordinary Americans disagree, and for millions of ordinary people around the world, America remains, in Lincoln’s words, “the last best hope of earth.”

Then-Vice President Bush put it well in 1988, while running against Michael Dukakis: “My opponent … sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. I see America as the leader–a unique nation with a special role in the world.”

Now, the Dukakis view of the world seems to have been adopted as an unofficial, if unspoken, policy of this administration. The policy elites all seem to believe it, and they act daily on that belief. Our leaders take a cramped view of our own country, its history, and its possibilities. I’m extremely concerned about the implications of our debt and budget crises for our future, but I’m still confident in America and Americans.

I still believe in American exceptionalism. But I am concerned that if we are not lead by leaders who believe in our unique American spirit and mission, then we will not be able to remain an exceptional nation for long. And we will not be able to retain what President George H.W. Bush described as our “special role in the world.”

And in this new era, does the idea of American exceptionalism need to be reinterpreted in order for the United States to remain a truly unique nation? We are now lead by an administration that has consistently denied our special gifts and our special responsibilities. And afterward we will need a leader who–like President Ronald Reagan–can help understand ourselves, our strengths, and our example for the world again and in a new light.

by Mallory Factor

Mallory Factor is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Economic Roundtable and cofounder of The Monday Meeting, an influential meeting of economic conservatives, journalists and corporate leaders in New York City. He can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter at @malloryfactor.