Obama’s New American Exceptionalism

At the Democratic convention, the president framed America as a shining city on a hill—under constant construction.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Barack Obama is a tinkerer and a poet in whose hands the concept of “American exceptionalism” is being reshaped for the 21st century and weaponized against Trumpism.

First used with respect to the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville, the concept of American exceptionalism is 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, and most-deserving country on Earth.

Obama drew from this tradition in his Democratic National Convention address Wednesday night. “America has changed over the years,” he said, remembering his Scotch-Irish ancestors who didn’t like braggarts or bullies or people who took short cuts, and who valued honesty and hard work, kindness and courtesy, humility and responsibility.

“These values my grandparents taught me—they haven’t gone anywhere. They’re as strong as ever; still cherished by people of every party, every race, and every faith. They live on in each of us,” Obama said. “What makes us American, what makes us patriots, is what’s in here. That’s what matters. That’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own.”

Obama hopes to reframe the election for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Voters are demanding radical change, but the former secretary of state is the emblem of status quo and Trump is living disruption. She represents a political system that most Americans don’t trust; that failed to protect their livelihoods in the shift from industrialism to globalism; that made promises it didn’t keep; that puts more value in the results of the next election than the needs of the next generation. She could lose that fight.

But if the election becomes a battle over whose vision best represents true American greatness, Trump might not look so good.

American exceptionalism is a recurring character in the nation's narrative. We, the people. Manifest Destiny. Conceived in liberty. Fear itself. Ask not. Morning in America. United we stand. Yes, we can. In times of great change and tumult, presidents seek to inspire beleaguered Americans by reminding them of their national identity.

For a generation of Republicans raised in the Reagan era, American exceptionalism has become a false perfection—overly polished and star-spangled jingoism. It became a cudgel to question the patriotism of Democrats, and it spoke to America's standing abroad rather than the aspirations of its people at home.

Obama didn’t buy into that Republican definition—for instance, he famously refused to wear a lapel flag pin—and instead, sought to redefine it into something honest, tangible, and uniquely aspirational. “Obama’s conception is more inwardly focused,” wrote Greg Jaffe wrote a year ago for The Washington Post. “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.”

A year ago, Obama stood at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and used the civil-rights movement to speak of a nation with blemishes and grit that learns from its mistakes and gets better. Greater.

"What could be more American than what happened in this place?" Obama asked. "What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people—the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country's course?"

As I wrote last June, Obama's concept of American exceptionalism is not, as critics say, something smaller. It's Reagan-plus: a striving city under constant construction.

Obama’s new American exceptionalism provided the intellectual and moral spine of his address Wednesday night.

I’m here to tell you that yes, we still have more work to do. More work to do for every American still in need of a good job or a raise, paid leave or a decent retirement; for every child who needs a sturdier ladder out of poverty or a world-class education; for everyone who hasn’t yet felt the progress of these past seven and a half years. We need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer; our homeland more secure, and our world more peaceful and sustainable for the next generation. We’re not done perfecting our union, or living up to our founding creed – that all of us are created equal and free in the eyes of God.

Some conservatives hear those lines and believe—or pretend to believe—that Obama doesn’t love his country. They miss something truly exceptional about America: The framers encouraged dissent because it forces positive change. Criticism of country doesn’t make you a disloyal American; it makes you a patriot.

Obama suggested Trump has gone too far. He said the Republican nominee’s brand of “resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate” are not just unexceptional, they’re un-American.

[T]hat is not the America I know.

The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous. Sure, we have real anxieties—about paying the bills, protecting our kids, caring for a sick parent. We get frustrated with political gridlock, worry about racial divisions; are shocked and saddened by the madness of Orlando or Nice. There are pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures; men who took pride in hard work and providing for their families who now feel forgotten; parents who wonder whether their kids will have the same opportunities we had.

All that is real. We’re challenged to do better; to be better. But as I’ve traveled this country, through all fifty states; as I’ve rejoiced with you and mourned with you, what I’ve also seen, more than anything, is what is right with America. I see people working hard and starting businesses; people teaching kids and serving our country. I see engineers inventing stuff, and doctors coming up with new cures. I see a younger generation full of energy and new ideas, not constrained by what is, ready to seize what ought to be.

Most of all, I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together – black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young and old; gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love.

His idea of exceptionalism is far closer to Reagan’s “city on a hill” than the dystopia Trump described at his nominating convention—an existence so grim that a savior is needed to make America great again. Trump declared, “I alone can fix it.”

Michelle Obama answered Trump first, reminding Americans on Monday night that she wakes up in a home built by slaves and yet her daughters—“two beautiful, intelligent, black young women”—take for granted that a woman can be president.

"[D]on’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again,” she said. “Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”

Her husband picked up the theme. “America is already great,” he said. “America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump.”

“In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election—the meaning of our democracy,” the president said. “Ronald Reagan called America ‘a shining city on a hill.’ Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix.”

This is political judo: Obama is telling Americans that Trump is not just attacking the political establishment, he’s attacking them.

“He’s selling the American people short,” Obama said. “We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that together, we, the People, can form a more perfect union.”

The frame might allow Clinton to make an aspirational appeal to undecided voters who hold negative views about both candidates. Sure, they don’t trust her, but they also don’t trust Trump, and he can’t go positive. This could be Clinton’s differentiator. Pride in what America is and can be.

That’s why we can attract strivers and entrepreneurs from around the globe to build new factories and create new industries here. That’s why our military can look the way it does, every shade of humanity, forged into common service. That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”

That’s America. Those bonds of affection; that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own.

Stronger together. That is Clinton’s slogan, which, until Obama put it into context, seemed pretty unexceptional.