I guess I had it coming to me. I mean, I did insult Old Europe this week when I said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that President Obama’s suggestion that we should celebrate Europe’s union was “ridiculous.” I mocked the idea of celebrating Europe, saying, “What should we do, have a ‘celebrate Europe’ stamp?”
What Obama describes as “American exceptionalism” sounds like a political-science professor’s definition of nationalism, not a belief in America’s unique accomplishments and history.
So when a German tourist wound up his arm and slugged my 35-pound dog on Wednesday morning in Central Park for greeting him with too much exuberance, I should have been prepared. When I turned to him and said, “We don’t hit animals in this country,” he sneered at me and said, “I am German. I am lawyer.”
I called the cops and, God bless them, they were on the scene in less than five minutes. “Were they tourists?” the cops asked me when I explained what happened.
“Yes, Germans,” I said.
“Mmmhmm,” the cop said.
“Mmmhmm, what?” I asked.
“It happens a lot,” the cop said.
So, nasty European tourists have been known to hit dogs in Central Park. Who knew? It got me thinking. Of course, not all European tourists are dog beaters—most of them are pleasant, and I imagine more than a few of them love dogs. But they are not better than us, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what the hell our president is over there apologizing for.
Republicans have paid close attention to clues this week about Obama’s working definition of American exceptionalism. This examination does not mean we suspect he is anti-American, as some on the left have suggested. Waking up to news Tuesday that he’d visited our brave troops in Iraq before returning to Washington, D.C., I am quite certain, as I was Monday and the day before that, that Barack Obama loves his country.
But his definition of American exceptionalism differs from that of most Republicans. At just about every stop on his weeklong tour, Obama missed opportunities to remind audiences of America’s generosity and compassion by emphasizing our shortcomings and failures. He is wildly popular overseas (and at home), but instead of spending some of his abundant personal and political capital to deliver a clear and direct message that promoted and defended American values, he muddied the message by emphasizing occasions in which America had been “arrogant, dismissive, and derisive” toward Europe.
Liberals found it refreshing. Conservatives found it offensive. The way we see ourselves as Americans and the role of America in the world today is one of the greatest philosophical divides in this country.
Asked if he believed in American exceptionalism during his overseas trip, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
His suggestion that a belief in American exceptionalism is akin to the Brits’ belief in British exceptionalism and the Greeks’ belief in Greek exceptionalism played well in foreign capitals and at the United Nations. But what Obama describes as “American exceptionalism” sounds like a political-science professor’s definition of nationalism, not a belief in America’s unique accomplishments and history of unrivaled freedom, generosity, productivity, innovation, militaristic and diplomatic strength, and record as liberators, protectors, and defenders.
In our minds and hearts, most Republicans go straight to Reagan’s description of the shining city on the hill when we hear the term “American exceptionalism.” We see America as the solution to the world’s most intractable challenges. While we understand that we are not perfect, we see America as the nation that gives the most, works the hardest, and fights the fights that need to be fought to protect free people everywhere.
By contrast, the Obama camp made clear, during last year’s presidential campaign, that in its view, the city is shining no more. “It’s going to take a generation or so,” Samantha Power, then a senior foreign-policy adviser to Obama, told Newsweek senior editor Michael Hirsh in an article for the Washington Monthly, “to reclaim American exceptionalism.” Americans, Power said, were “neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers” in the world’s problems.
Obama also was asked about American exceptionalism during the campaign. At a presidential forum, he was asked if he saw American exceptionalism through good deeds and volunteerism. Obama’s response: “We have always balanced the tradition of individual responsibility and self-reliance with notions of community and love for country, in part because of voluntary associations. What it’s done is allowed people to—to exercise the freedom to determine the direction of their communities, but still recognizing that we are part of a common project of creating a better life for the next generation. And that’s something that’s been lost. But what we’re seeing in this campaign is that [is] something that people want to restore.”
With these comments, Obama suggested that Americans could regain a sense of community by getting involved in his campaign and that through this “common project” they could regain what has been “lost” in America. The emphasis then, as it seems now, was on an America in decline. The notion of an America in decline is necessary for Obama because he has positioned himself as its savior. This is uncharted territory for an American president, and over the next four years we will learn a lot about whether the American public sees itself as our new president does or if we still believe in American exceptionalism that holds us out as, well, exceptional.
For my part, I would have been inspired if Obama had re-enacted my favorite scene from the movie Love Actually. Hugh Grant, who plays the British prime minister, leaves meetings with Billy Bob Thornton, who plays the U.S. president, and stands up for his country.
Obama could have said to the Europeans: “We may be a young country, but we are a great country. We are not perfect. We make mistakes. But a whole lot of good has happened at the hands of generous and brave Americans over the last eight years. We have saved countless lives on the continent of Africa from senseless deaths by fighting AIDS and malaria. Despite ongoing challenges, a vibrant democracy is growing in Iraq. Women and girls have returned to school in Afghanistan. America has prevented further attacks at home and abroad. Yes, we face challenges. Our economy is in crisis, and America will do her part, but you must do yours. The threat of terrorism is dire. The fight in Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture. We need you to send troops to fight alongside our brave men and women. It is the only way to ensure that we will all be safe and free.”
Instead, he apologized. Oh, well. There’s always next time.
Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.