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The 'exceptional' debate

From NBC's Mark Murray
In recent days, conservatives and Republicans have begun rallying around this critique of President Obama: He doesn't believe in America's exceptionalism.

On Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) declared that Obama was putting the U.S. on a path to the decline of "American exceptionalism."

Also at CPAC, former Bush U.N. ambassador John Bolton argued that the president doesn't believe in "the exceptionalism of America."

And the cover story in the latest National Review, entitled "Defend Her: Obama's Threat to American Exceptionalism," contends: "The president has signaled again and again his unease with traditional American patriotism. As a senator he notoriously made a virtue of not wearing a flag pin. As president he has been unusually detached from American history: When a foreign critic brought up the Bay of Pigs, rather than defend the country's honor he noted that he was a toddler at the time. And while acknowledging that America has been a force for good, he has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation."

Of course, Obama was asked whether he believes in American exceptionalism while visiting Europe during the NATO summit. His response: "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."

That question Obama was asked defined American exceptionalism as the United States being "uniquely qualified to lead the world." Historians typically regard American exceptionalism as why the U.S. didn't have socialist revolutions or strong working-class movements like most of Europe did in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yet the conservative definition of American exceptionalism -- particularly in the National Review article -- is aimed at Obama's efforts to reform the nation's health-care system, enact cap-and-trade (which, ironically, is based on market principles), etc. Here's National Review summing up what American liberals want: "Why couldn't we be more like them -- like the French, the like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society?"

But if you read Obama's speeches -- from the president campaign and now as president -- you see a president with a different idea of American exceptionalism: America's unique ability to evolve and become a more perfect union. "This union may never be perfect," he said in his famous '08 speech on race, "but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected."

"In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given," he said in his inaugural address. "It must be earned."

Here's what he said in his Berlin speech during the presidential campaign: "We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions. But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived -- at great cost and great sacrifice -- to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world."

So it's not that Obama doesn't think America is an exceptional nation; his own words debunk that critique.

Rather, it's that conservatives and liberals have two very different ideas of what "exceptional" means.