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Obama and ‘American Exceptionalism’

FactCheck.org logo FactCheck.org 2/13/2015 Robert Farley
President Barack Obama pauses while delivering the commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2014, in West Point, N.Y., Wednesday, May 28, 2014. © Susan Walsh/AP Photo President Barack Obama pauses while delivering the commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2014, in West Point, N.Y., Wednesday, May 28, 2014.

Bobby Jindal revived an old criticism about President Obama’s penchant for multilateralism, but he went too far when he said Obama “won’t proudly proclaim American exceptionalism.”

At the U.S. Military Academy last year, Obama pronounced unequivocally: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” That’s just one of many examples.

The Louisiana governor, who is mulling a run for the presidency, made his comment during a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity about Obama’s “Crusades” comment at the National Prayer Breakfast. Jindal, a Republican, said it pointed to a larger problem of “moral relativism” by the left.

Jindal, Feb. 9: There’s a greater problem here. This is a president who won’t proudly proclaim American exceptionalism, maybe the first president ever who truly doesn’t believe in that.

Look at his foreign policy. Doesn’t believe America as a force for good, it doesn’t seem. Seems like instead, he believes in multilateralism as a goal, not a tactic. He allows foreign capitals to have veto power over our foreign policy.

We allow that politicians may have reasonable disagreements about the role of American leadership in world affairs, and Obama’s commitment to multilateralism. And there may be large differences of opinion about what a belief in “American exceptionalism” means and how that should manifest itself. But Jindal’s claim that Obama “won’t proudly proclaim American exceptionalism” simply ignores Obama’s own words on numerous occasions.

This debate over Obama’s belief in “American exceptionalism” goes back to the early days of his presidency, when he was asked during an April 2009 press conference about his “enthusiasm for multilateral frameworks,” such as the G20 Summit and NATO. His answer –”I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” — did not satisfy many of his critics. Here’s Obama’s fuller answer:

Edward Luce, Financial Times, April 4, 2009: [C]ould I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it?

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.

At the time, some criticized Obama’s response as a rebuke of American exceptionalism, because Obama said  it was probably a universal feeling to believe in one’s own country’s exceptionalism. James Kirchick, then an assistant editor of the New Republic, for example, wrote that, “If all countries are ‘exceptional,’ then none are, and to claim otherwise robs the word, and the idea of American exceptionalism, of any meaning.”

Two days after Obama made the comment, Fox News host Sean Hannity said Obama “marginalized his own country by saying our sense of exceptionalism is no different than that of the British and the Greeks.”

The attack gained renewed prominence three years later when Mitt Romney, then seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said: “Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do. And I think over the last three or four years, some people around the world have begun to question that. On this Tuesday, we have an opportunity — you have an opportunity — to vote, and take the next step in bringing back that special nature of being American.”

Two days later, Obama dismissed Romney’s statement as political nonsense.

Obama, April 2, 2012: It’s worth noting that I first arrived on the national stage with a speech at the Democratic Convention that was entirely about American exceptionalism, and that my entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.

In the years since, Obama has made a point of publicly proclaiming American exceptionalism.

From remarks at a U.S. Military Academy commencement ceremony:

Obama, May 28, 2014: I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.

And from a speech about the economy:

Obama, July 25, 2013: What makes us special — a lot of times we talk about American exceptionalism and how much we love this country, and there are so many wonderful things about our country. But what makes us the envy of the world has not just been our ability to generate incredible wealth for a few people; it’s the fact that we’ve given everybody a chance to pursue their own true measure of happiness. (Applause.) That’s who we are.

More recently, Obama said this in a speech praising health care workers who went to West Africa to combat Ebola:

Obama, Oct. 29, 2014: A lot of people talk about American exceptionalism. I’m a firm believer in American exceptionalism. You know why I am? It’s because of folks like this. It’s because we don’t run and hide when there’s a problem….

So we’re having not just effect by what we do directly but also by a change in mindset in the countries affected and around the globe. That’s what’s happening because of American leadership, and it is not abstract: It is people who are willing to go there at significant sacrifice to make a difference. That’s American exceptionalism. That’s what we should be proud of. That’s who we are.

In a story on Dec. 4, 2014, Byron Tau of the Wall Street Journal noted that, “Twice in the last week, President Barack Obama has loudly trumpeted the idea of American exceptionalism.”

As an example, Tau cited Obama’s remarks at the Business Roundtable in December.

Obama, Dec. 3, 2014: So the bottom line is, is that America continues to lead. …  at the G20 [summit in Australia], what was striking was the degree of optimism that the world felt about the American economy — an optimism that in some ways is greater than how Americans sometimes feel about the American economy. I think what you saw among world leaders was consistent with what we know from global surveys, which is when you ask people now, what is the number-one place to invest, it’s the United States of America….

And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we’ve got the best workers in the world, we’ve got the best university system, and research and development and innovation in the world, and we’ve got the best businesses in the world.

Also cited were Obama’s remarks a day earlier at the National Institutes of Health, praising American medical research:

Obama, Dec. 2, 2014: Part of American leadership in the world — one of the things that has always marked us as exceptional — is our leadership in science and our leadership in research….

I have to tell you, I traveled to Asia, we had the G20 Summit — if America had not led, if I had not been able to go to CDC, make a major announcement about the commitments we were going to make, be able to go to the United Nations and basically call on other countries to step up, and know that we were following through with our own commitments, had we not done that, the world would not have responded in the same way. American leadership matters every time. We set the tone and we set the agenda.

Again, one can debate the role of U.S. leadership in the world, but Jindal’s claim that Obama “won’t proudly proclaim American exceptionalism” is quickly and easily belied by a search through Obama’s public speeches.

– Robert Farley

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