Obama on exceptionalism

It's after midnight in China, but I wanted to mention in real time an oratorical performance that deserves a second look. It's from Barack Obama's NATO press conference that just wrapped up, and the part worth studying is the two or three minutes that followed a question by Edward Luce of the Financial Times.

I have nothing against Luce, who wrote a very good recent book about India, but here he asked in what can only be called plummy tones whether Obama still clung to the idea of "American exceptionalism." The general phrasing of the question held that idea out at arm's length as a kind of yahoo colonial oddity.

"I believe in American exceptionalism," Obama said after one beat for thought. "Just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism..." I don't have a transcript here, but what was impressive was how rapidly he seemed to have figured out the full shape of his answer; how effortlessly the term "the Brits" (and the instant pairing with "the Greeks") offset the seeming Oxbridge hauteur* of the question; and how he went on to give so balanced a response that no one, Yank or otherwise, could fail to be satisfied.

Of course he was proud of his country, Obama said. But it was also objectively exceptional in several ways: it still had the world's largest economy; its military power was unmatched; and -- with emphasis here -- its Constitutional principles enshrined values and ideals that truly were exceptional. Therefore it should be proud of its role in the world, and embrace its responsibilities.

Then came the pivot, introduced as usual with the word "Now..." Of course America's strength didn't mean it could do things wholly on its own. And of course Obama's pride in his country didn't blind him to the fact that it sometimes could be wrong, nor to the idea that other people from other countries had good ideas that had to be heeded. Indeed, the very fact of American leadership made it all the more important to show respect and listen attentively. He wrapped it all up by saying he saw "no contradiction" between the idea that America was exceptionally strong and had an exceptional leadership role, and the reality that it needed to work with others as part of a team.

When a transcript or YouTube clip comes out, give it a look. The thoughts may seem banal, but I challenge anyone to come up with a clearer explanation of American exceptionalism to an international audience in the same number of words -- not to mention doing so on live TV with maybe five seconds to figure out what your answer will be. In a world where evidence mattered, these few minutes would put an end to the "can't talk without a teleprompter" madness. More important, they're a way of explaining to Americans the potential and limits of our international role.

And, yes, Obama did end the press conference by ducking a question about Kosovo. But knowing what not to answer is a part of rhetorical effectiveness too. Update: He also appeared to refer to the language of Austria as "Austrian," thus: "I don't know how you say it in Austrian, but we call it wheeling-dealing." If this had been GW Bush, it would have been taken as an obvious gaffe, as in his calling the residents of Greece "Grecians." Here you can't be sure whether it's a plain error or a knowing casualism, as in saying that Australians speak "Australian" -- eg, in the ad that says, "Foster's: Australian for 'beer.' "

: The questioner has convinced me that he didn't really mean it that way. See this mea culpa.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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