Jon Meacham Feeds Into Right-Wing's "Exceptionalism" Argument


In a piece for the Ideas section of, former Newsweek managing editor and current Random House executive editor Jon Meacham took a stab at explaining American exceptionalism -- a phrase conservatives have repeatedly invoked to attack President Obama. "Are Americans really exceptional?" Meacham asked. He wrote:

In rough political terms, the Republican presidential field argues that America is a place set apart, a nation with a divinely ordained mission to lead the world. A corollary to the case as it is being put in the 2012 cycle is that President Obama does not believe this. George H.W. Bush leveled the same charge against Michael Dukakis in 1988, claiming that Dukakis thought of the United States as just another country on the roll of the United Nations. The argument is well-suited to reassure voters who are pessimistic about the life of the nation and about the place of America in the world.

We are going to be hearing more about this notion of exceptionalism, possibly far beyond Iowa and New Hampshire and into the general election. So let's be clear about the history -- and the uses and abuses -- of the vision of America as an instrument of God's will on earth.

This sense that we are the new Israel, a chosen people, is among the most ancient and most potent of American ideas. It has informed our finest hours and some of our worst. It has given us the confidence to project our power in defense of the weak and of the innocent and the persecuted. It has sometimes fed a sense of hubris and moral self-certainty.

Meacham goes on to claim that "[w]e are exceptional not because of who we are but because of what we do and how we put the ideals of human dignity, individual freedom, and liberty under law into action. Those ideas are rooted in part in our religious traditions; it is ahistorical to deny that faith played a critical role in the development of American freedom."

Since Obama's 2009 remarks addressing whether he subscribed to the "school of 'American exceptionalism' that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world," conservatives have mischaracterized his comments to push the argument that he has "a lack of faith in American exceptionalism." While Meacham noted that this is indeed a Republican construct we will "be hearing more about" during the 2012 election, he made no effort to explore what Obama himself has said about America's role in the world -- only writing that the rhetoric of exceptionalism "reassures" those "voters who are pessimistic about the life of the nation and about the place of America in the world."

As the Washington Post's Kathleen Parker has pointed out, "exceptionalism" has "become a litmus test for patriotism. It's the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution." The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen has noted that the term is "a favorite of the neocons, and undergirds the idea that we operate on a different level than everyone else."

While conservative media figures love to parrot their right-wing counterparts in the Republican ranks, they, like Meacham, never seem to get around to pointing out what Obama has actually said about the United States. In those oft-attacked comments from 2009, Obama stated (emphasis added):

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think 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.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.

Following those remarks, Time's Michael Scherer called Obama "a self-described American Exceptionalist."

During his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama said (emphasis added):

OBAMA: It is time to move forward as one nation.

We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit -- none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.

Of course, some countries don't have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. If they don't want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn't get written.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.


From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future.

We're a nation that says, "I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company." "I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree." "I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try." "I'm not sure how we'll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we'll get there. I know we will."

We do big things.

NBC's David Gregory described the speech afterwards as "a call to arms to reclaim American exceptionalism."

In his March speech on Libya, Obama stated:

OBAMA: To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and -- more profoundly -- our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

Following the speech, Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic wrote: Obama "clearly believes in that exceptionalism -- and now will live with its onerous responsibilities." Mother Jones' Adam Serwer added: "After this speech, anyone who argues Obama doesn't believe in 'American exceptionalism' deserves to be laughed out of town." And Benen commented:

Not surprisingly, President Obama's remarks last night on U.S. intervention in Libya did not end the debate on the mission's value. No one seriously expected it would.

But maybe it can help end the debate on "American exceptionalism"?

Posted In
Government, The Presidency & White House
Jon Meacham
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