What makes America exceptional? It could be the mythology of perfection: the shining "city upon a hill" imagined by colonist John Winthrop and repackaged by Ronald Reagan to glorify the exercise of U.S. power and influence in the world. Or "American exceptionalism" might mean something different in the 21st century.
Something honest and tangible and, like our times, uniquely aspirational. Something like what Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post described in his provocative essay, "Obama's American Exceptionalism."
Obama's conception is more inwardly focused. It's a patriotism that embraces the darker moments in American history and celebrates the ability of the unsung and the outsiders to challenge the country's elite and force change.
It's a view that one senior White House official said is better suited to a country whose population is growing browner and more accepting of gays and lesbians.
That is a scary thought for some people. I get it: Life is changing so quickly and the future is so uncertain that the past is a pacifier—and so politicians cling to the founding myths of the nation. And yet, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and other GOP presidential candidates critical of Obama's formulation are making a mistake with their retro pitch to a populace that has always looked to the future.
The term "American exceptionalism," first used with respect to the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville, refers to the notion that this country differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, ethnic diversity, and revolution-sprung history. It is often expressed as superiority: The United States is the biggest, most powerful, smartest, richest, most-deserving country on Earth.