It’s great that The Washington Post is covering the revealing uproar over President Obama’s remarks at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, but a little clarification is in order. First, some background: Obama is under fire for taking the occasion to remind guests that violence and extremism are “not unique to one group or one religion.” “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place,” Obama warned, “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” This reminder infuriated Republicans like former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who snorted: “The President’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” Drawing on this mini-controversy for a snappy lede, the Post’s story opens: “President Obama has never been one to go easy on America.” Oof. Things don’t improve after that inauspicious start: “As a new president, he dismissed the idea of American exceptionalism, noting that Greeks think their country is special, too. He labeled the Bush-era interrogation practices, euphemistically called ‘harsh’ for years, as torture. America, he has suggested, has much to answer given its history in Latin America and the Middle East.”
Partisan fuming from a GOP B-lister isn’t worth a close read, but the Post’s interpretation of this argument deserves a closer look. Its baldly false opening claim, that Obama has “dismissed the idea of American exceptionalism,” is contradicted several paragraphs later by the admission that “Obama has argued that United States is exceptional, or at least has an exceptional role to play in the world given its military power and political traditions.” Sometimes the inconsistencies are packed even more tightly: In the course of a single sentence, the piece admits that “harsh” is a euphemism for torture, while nonetheless suggesting that it’s unduly severe of Obama to drop that euphemism and call torture by its name. Well, which is it?
This confusion is, if nothing else, an instructive example of how American exceptionalism is a concept endlessly twisted and abused. The Post’s struggle with the idea is partly a result of its too-clever take on the controversy, and partly a result of forced even-handedness: Every instance of Obama’s reflection on the idea has to be paired with the silly reactions of conservative critics. In that way, simple acknowledgments of fact—like admitting the United States’ role in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister—are labeled as “admissions of fault” that give reasonable cause for complaint.
Why, the reader is led to wonder, is the President so full of loathing? A brief clue is given: “Obama has argued that United States is exceptional because it responds to its citizens’ frank assessments of whether it lives up to its core values.” Yes, “Obama has argued” this, but his argument is not nearly as novel as the story implies. Treating it that way sets up the suggestion that the President harbors a strange, revisionist notion of exceptionalism: “But he has always argued that straying from those [core American] values, as he believes happened during the George W. Bush Administration, weakens the United States.”
This leaves us with a few alternatives. First, either Obama doesn’t believe in exceptionalism, or he does. The article makes both claims, but eventually admits the latter is true. In that case, Obama believes that America has a) exceptional values and b) an exceptional role to play in the world. His conservative critics would say the same thing. But unlike those critics, Obama has drawn a reasonable conclusion from those beliefs: If America is special because of its values and its unique role on the world stage, then betraying those values and abusing that role amount to undermining the very things that make America special. I suppose if you disagree with Obama’s reasoning, you could argue that America’s values are what make it special, but even so, it doesn’t matter when we betray them. In other words: Our values make us exceptional, but if we abandon them we’re still exceptional. That doesn’t make any sense. I doubt most of Obama’s critics—who are pushing this line for crudely partisan reasons—have given the topic much thought. Fine. The GOP can be as confused as it wants about American exceptionalism. But does the Washington Post have to be?