The New Republic does a fairly good job dissecting Bill Kristol’s last screed of 2009 — but I think they missed something. A regular in Kristol’s arsenal is the assertion that President Obama somehow betrays the notion that America occupies, and ought to occupy, a special place in the world:
The American public seem to have decided–personal goodwill toward the man notwithstanding–that President Obama is not doing a particularly good job, that more big government liberalism is the last thing we need, and that, yes, American exceptionalism isn’t a bad thing or an out-of-date idea.
We’ve covered this before. Kristol’s conception of American exceptionalism — the notion, shared by many of his fellow travelers, that America can do no wrong — is a fairly narrow one, and at odds with any responsible view of world power. If we are an exceptional nation, it’s because our forefathers have made us so; exceptionalism is an occasion to which each generation must rise, not a birthright to be squandered. Because humanity is fallible, nations are fallible, and accordingly, we owe it to ourselves, and the potential we still possess, to take a hard look at our actions at home and abroad, and ensure their conformity with our ideals. For a leader to “believe in American exceptionalism,” then, he must be committed to the idea that America is unique, and can alter the world for the better through this uniqueness — not to any particular means to that end.
Obama lives up to this test on a daily basis. Imagine, if you will, a room filled with shelf upon shelf of crystal balls, each containing one sentence from the President’s public speaking career. It would be nearly impossible to throw a rock in this presidential “hall of prophecies” without hitting an elegant description of what America should (and must) be. This week was no exception. Kristol may dispute Obama’s policies, but the claim that the President does not believe in American uniqueness has no merit.
It’s long past time to put an end to the idea that the Republican Party, or the conservative movement, have a monopoly on patriotism. They don’t, and neither do we. Thomas Paine keyed his belief in America’s promise — his early version of American exceptionalism — to the country’s relative novelty. Free of old Europe’s divisions, a new nation, physically distant from her creator, could prosper without being weighed down by old grudges. It worked; but in the intervening centuries, we’ve managed to build new grudges. It might be time to retrace the roots of American exceptionalism, to better ensure its continuity.