A couple headlines have come out of former Vice President Dick Cheney's interview with Fox's Sean Hannity that aired last night: one is that Cheney thinks Obama is "more radical" than he first appeared; the other is that Obama, in Cheney's words, "doesn't fully understand or share that view of American exceptionalism that I think most of us believe in."
Here's the video and the full quote:
I think most of us believe, and most presidents believe and talk about, the truly exceptional nature of America--our history, where we come from, our belief in our constitutional values and principles, our advocacy for freedom and democracy, the fact that we've provided it for millions of people all over the globe and done so unselfishly. There's never been a nation like the United States of America in world history. And yet, when you have a president who goes around and bows to his host and then proceeds to apologize profusely for the United States, I find that deeply disturbing. That says to me this is a guy who doesn't fully understand or share that view of American exceptionalism that I think most of us believe in.
This is a line of criticism that conservatives have leveled at Obama--one that hasn't always been led by Cheney, but by conservative bloggers and other commentators as well--since early in his administration, and even before: that his "World Apology Tour," as it was dubbed in the spring, amounted to a soft, lefty prostration before the world, one that demeaned America's standing and sought to engage other countries in a kind of socialist, EU, everyone's-equal-here mode.
The problem is this: Americans don't actually believe in American exceptionalism. At least not in the neocon version.
The idea that America has unique qualities as a constitutional democracy is a fairly inert, uncontroversial one, to which most Americans probably ascribe. But this took on a different meaning over the previous eight years of neocon reign, as people like Cheney applied "American exceptionalism" aggressively in their foreign policy thinking to mean promoting American interests and principles abroad. (Or, as the Project for the New American Century put it even earlier, "preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.")
The Iraq War was seen as an extension of that line of thought. By 2006, many Americans saw the U.S. presence in Iraq as a misguided function of neocon hubris--that the missions of "liberating" the Iraqi people and, the administration's harshest critics suspected, securing strategic and oil interests in the region, were ambitious, ideologically driven goals that weren't worth the enormous cost of lives and money. The tropes of American exceptionalism--"freedom" for instance--were over-appropriated to drum up support for an unpopular war, and the semiotics of American exceptionalism were brought down along with President Bush's approval rating as Americans began to reject the nationalistic fervor that swept the nation after 9/11 and, ultimately, was co-opted to justify invading Iraq.
The 2006 and 2008 elections were reactions against the neocon version of "American exceptionalism"--President Obama's election being the major plot point at which voters rejected it. Opposing the Iraq war and seeking to regain America's global standing were focal points in his campaign, and the American public agreed with them, despite the heavy fire Obama took from John McCain and his conservative allies for, for instance, going to Germany to deliver a speech.
In January 2009, just before Obama was inaugurated, 74 percent of U.S. adults (including 47 percent of Republicans) thought the Bush administration had damaged America's global standing, and 83 percent said it was important for Obama to work to improve it, according to a Harris poll conducted for BBC America.
In the past ten years, we have already experienced the buildup of American exceptionalism as a paradigm, its application and ideological advancement by the neocon movement, and the American public's rejection of it--or at least its neocon interpretation.
Even if Americans still believe in America's exceptional qualities as a constitutional democracy that stands for freedom, we have entered a new era when it comes to the politics of the term.