What does it mean to be ‘exceptional' in today's world?

February 1, 2011 

He didn't say it. That word: "exceptional." President Barack Obama described an exceptional nation in his State of the Union address, but he studiously avoided using the word conservatives long to hear.

It's a funny thing, this focus on a single word that isn't much heard from this president, but that tumbles so easily -- and adamantly -- from the lips of Republican contenders for his title.

We're going to be hearing it a lot in the coming months as Republicans try to out exceptionalize one another for the presidential nomination. Exhausted already?

The exceptional issue may be political, but it isn't only that. The idea lies smack at the heart of how Americans view themselves, and the role of government in their lives and in the broader world. Is America exceptional or isn't she? Is there something about this country that makes us unique in the world?

Of course there is, and Obama has frequently acknowledged those things, including in his State of the Union address. But he seems to avoid the word because, among other possible reasons, it is fraught with layers of meaning and because, to some minds, there's always the possibility he doesn't quite believe it. A December poll (USA Today/Gallup) found that 37 percent of Americans don't think Obama believes that the "U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world."

This nevertheless leaves a majority -- 58 percent -- who do think he believes it, compared with 86 percent who thought Ronald Reagan did, followed by Bill Clinton (77 percent) and George W. Bush (74 percent).

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. To many on the left, it has become birther code for "he's not one of us."

Between left and right, however, are those who merely want affirmation that all is right with the world. Most important, they want assurance that the president shares their values. So why won't Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?

I asked House Speaker John Boehner that question in a recent interview, curious to see how he'd explain the chasm between Democrats who see no need to talk of exceptionalism and Republicans who consider it crucial to their national identity.

Boehner said that either "the left" seems afraid of the word or, perhaps, they don't believe it. This caused a small tempest of protest in some quarters.

Obama did indeed speak of America's uniqueness, even recognizing Boehner, who grew up without privilege to become the third most powerful person in government, as an exemplar of the American dream.

Do we make too much of a single word?

Exceptionalism became radioactive a couple of years ago when Obama was asked at an overseas news conference whether he subscribes to "the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world."

His answer has haunted him since: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

I remember thinking at the time: Bzzzzt. Wrong, Harvard. That is not the correct answer. There was more to his response, in fact, but the impression already was set.

What Obama added was 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."

Not so hard to say after all?

Calling oneself exceptional inarguably is problematic in the midst of an ongoing financial crisis; two wars that have resulted in untenable casualties; and crippling debt and deficits that betray the trust of future generations and behold us to China.

It also may feel jingoistic and inappropriate in these global times for one nation to set itself apart for self-admiration.

We mustn't brag, after all. Great nations don't have to remind others of their greatness. They merely have to be great.

Whether to take exception to exceptionalism is an interesting problem for the president and the nation. Perhaps it is best resolved through a presidential address in which Obama takes possession of the word and settles the question once and for all: What does American exceptionalism mean in today's world?

Mr. President?

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