Obama and the Burden of Exceptionalism
Post-’60s liberals, with the president as their standard bearer, seek to make a virtue of decline.
OPINION SEPTEMBER 1, 2011
By SHELBY STEELE
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: President Obama is destroying the country. Some say this destructiveness is intended; most say it is inadvertent, an outgrowth of inexperience, ideological wrong-headedness and an oddly undefined character. Indeed, on the matter of Mr. Obama’s character, today’s left now sounds like the right of three years ago. They have begun to see through the man and are surprised at how little is there.
Yet there is something more than inexperience or lack of character that defines this presidency: Mr. Obama came of age in a bubble of post-’60s liberalism that conditioned him to be an adversary of American exceptionalism. In this liberalism America’s exceptional status in the world follows from a bargain with the devil—an indulgence in militarism, racism, sexism, corporate greed, and environmental disregard as the means to a broad economic, military, and even cultural supremacy in the world. And therefore America’s greatness is as much the fruit of evil as of a devotion to freedom.
Mr. Obama did not explicitly run on an anti-exceptionalism platform. Yet once he was elected it became clear that his idea of how and where to apply presidential power was shaped precisely by this brand of liberalism. There was his devotion to big government, his passion for redistribution, and his scolding and scapegoating of Wall Street—as if his mandate was somehow to overcome, or at least subdue, American capitalism itself.
Anti-exceptionalism has clearly shaped his “leading from behind” profile abroad—an offer of self-effacement to offset the presumed American evil of swaggering cowboyism. Once in office his “hope and change” campaign slogan came to look like the “hope” of overcoming American exceptionalism and “change” away from it.
So, in Mr. Obama, America gained a president with ambivalence, if not some antipathy, toward the singular greatness of the nation he had been elected to lead.
But then again, the American people did elect him. Clearly Americans were looking for a new kind of exceptionalism in him (a black president would show America to have achieved near perfect social mobility). But were they also looking for—in Mr. Obama—an assault on America’s bedrock exceptionalism of military, economic and cultural pre-eminence?