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Cody Gault Headshot

The State of the Union's American Exceptionalism

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I've long suspected that Republicans get their history from Elseworlds comics.

So it was no great surprise when Michele Bachmann told a crowd in Iowa last month that the founding fathers ended slavery, or when Sarah Palin told a Fox News reporter last week that the 1958 Sputnik satellite bankrupted the Soviet Union. When it comes to the GOP, facts tend to play second banana to the religion of American exceptionalism.

That's not to say that Democrats don't believe in America's innate superiority -- the idea that "America is great because America is good," as Alexis de Tocqueville and Glenn Beck have reasoned. But they tend to possess a degree of nuance about it.

Yet President Obama's State of the Union address last week was the equivalent of Sarah Palin's talking points in pretty prose; a pit bull with lipstick, so to speak.

He began by claiming that one of the things that sets America apart as a nation is: "We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people." To anyone who has visited (or read about) any of the other thriving democracies, the absurdity of this claim is kind of self-evident.

The president went on to make various assertions about the American worker's unrivaled spirit, ingenuity and work ethic: "No workers are more productive than ours." According to whom? As Jay-Z would say: we don't believe you; you need more people.

Then there was a lot of gloom and doom about how other countries are better educating their children. The impetus for reforming America's education system should be that good education is a fundamental human right and an educated populous is fundamental to a healthy democracy, not that South Korean kids score better on standardized tests.

Even the sound bites felt flat. "Winning the future" sounds like a Palinism. "We do big things" is
quintessential "talkin' loud, ain't sayin nothin'" vacuity. "Our Sputnik moment" is a bankrupt metaphor: putting a satellite into orbit is a triumph of human imagination that should be universally celebrated.

"The most insulting thing that a politician can do," Christopher Hitchens memorably wrote, "is to compel you to ask yourself: 'What does he take me for?'" That's the question Americans should be asking themselves about Obama right now.

Yet the speech was a hit.

One reason that Obama had to resort to magical thinking is probably that, as a recent survey found, roughly six in 10 Americans agree with the statement: "God has granted America a special role in human history." Obama was stroking the American ego.

Another reason is probably that he felt he needed to fight back against the resounding Republican battle cry that this president doesn't really love America -- that he doesn't believe America is exceptional.

The accusations ostensibly stem from a remark Obama made during his first presidential visit to Europe. When a foreign journalist asked if he ascribed to the notion that America is morally endowed to lead the world, 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."

Never mind that Obama went on to affirm his belief that America's morality is exceptional and has an unprecedented leadership role in global affairs. Saying Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism has become the politically correct way to imply that Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, or at least not a "real" American, because that fires up voters.

The ugly truth: There is a faction of the Republican base for whom Obama isn't a good ol' boy. He's just a boy.

Certainly, Obama's view of America's place in the world diverges from that of his predecessors. He has expressed his belief that it should be America and the world, rather than America vs. the world.

But that was part of his appeal.

His decision to abandon some hard truths is dispiriting. Americans need to accept that their country won't be the only real global superpower forever, which is not necessarily a bad thing, either.

It's as if Obama has decided in some paternal way that America is better off with the fantasy.

That's not to say that there were no good ideas in the State of the Union address. He hit the major points: improving education, infrastructure and industry while regulating big business and eliminating wasteful government spending is the path for turning America around. But he's wrapping his vitamins in bacon and betraying his 'keep it real' mandate.

And this has become a running theme for Obama's presidency.

Another example was the marked difference between the White House's endorsement of the Tunisian uprisings and the Egyptian ones. Both were revolutions against corrupt dictators, but one had a dictator that the American government has supported for 30 years. That's pragmatism run amok.

In other words, you cannot pick your moral stands according to convenience. Not when you cast yourself as the leader of the free world. The rest of the world notices these sorts of things.

And to say, as the president did, that America is "the light to the world" is to say that the rest of the world is a bit dimmer. Not such a bright idea.