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Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2009

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM.... The lead Politico piece of the day highlights "7 stories Barack Obama doesn't want told." The idea, apparently, is to identify seven media narratives that have the potential to catch on -- especially if they're picked up and repeatedly tirelessly by outlets like Politico -- and undermine President Obama's standing.

It's not an especially enlightening list, and most of the seven are pretty predictable -- the president needs more fiscal discipline; he's too thoughtful and appreciative of nuance; his White House is too mean ("the Chicago Way"); his White House isn't mean enough ("pushover"); he's elevated Speaker Pelosi too much; and he's arrogant.

Of particular interest, though, was John Harris' observation about the president may not be enough of an "American exceptionalist."

Politicians of both parties have embraced the idea that this country -- because of its power and/or the hand of Providence -- should be a singular force in the world. It would be hugely unwelcome for Obama if the perception took root that he is comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence or position in the world.

On this score, the reviews of Obama's recent Asia trip were harsh.

His peculiar bow to the emperor of Japan was symbolic. But his lots-of-velvet, not-much-iron approach to China had substantive implications.

I don't doubt that a variety of pundits find all of this very compelling. It's not.

For one thing, the bow wasn't especially "peculiar," and no one outside beltway newsrooms seems to care. For another, the "reviews" of the Asia trip may have been "harsh," but the reality of the trip was far more encouraging. Just as important, the bulk of the Obama agenda seems focused on helping the United States regain its influence and position as the global leader -- which is the opposite of being "comfortable with a relative decline."

As Greg Sargent explained, Harris' assumptions about exceptionalism seem especially off-base.

There's been a general unwillingness [among some political reporters] to acknowledge how vastly the landscape of national security politics has shifted in the wake of Bush's catastrophic foreign policy experiments and the electorate's resounding rejection from 2006 onward of his vision of swaggering unilateralism. Multiple polls have shown that majorities support Obama's engagement of hostile foreign leaders.... The electorate even supported Obama's decision to journey to Berlin and promise a new era of engagement, which was widely ridiculed as an "apology."

Harris notes that Obama should fear a narrative holding that he is "comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence," but this formulation, too, is revealing. Obama in 2008 explicitly rejected the notion that pragmatic global engagement, and the willingness to compromise with other countries in order to tackle common challenges, is tantamount to risking a "decline in U.S. influence." He won resoundingly. Indeed, he was elected after insisting that it's in America's interests to carve out a new type of global leadership role built on a rejection of that world view.

Quite right. In fact, in April, the president was specifically asked about whether he subscribes "to the school of 'American exceptionalism' that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world." Obama offered what struck me as the perfect 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.... I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

It's not how the right perceives American exceptionalism, and it's not how the wired-for-Republicans media perceives American exceptionalism, but it's a thoughtful, nuanced, mature approach to the issue.

That this might be a problematic "narrative" is absurd.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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At my family's Thanksgiving this year, we had a discussion about "why do we have to be an empire?" It began in response to the plan to increase troops in Afghanistan. I guess this "exceptionalism" stuff just goes right over my head.

Posted by: Sagacity on November 30, 2009 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Harris should have called his article, "Seven Political Attacks the GOP E-Mailed Over To Me This Morning, So I Could Finish Work Early and Take the Afternoon Off."

Christ almighty ... this isn't an article. It is stenography. Harris is gleefully passing on a series of vicious (but contradictory) memes that the President's political enemies are trying to introduce into public discourse. And Harris is perfectly willing to serve as the GOP's huckleberry.

Hope they patted him on the head and said "good boy" when Harris was done, and threw him a doggie treat.

Posted by: Bokonon on November 30, 2009 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

bokonon largely beats me to the punch: these clowns at the politco are complete and total morons. the key is to drive them out of business by refusing to click through, ever, to the politco.

Posted by: howard on November 30, 2009 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Glenn Beck was promoting the article and its themes this morning on his radio show-- also added that Obama isn't like an unemotional, logical Spock, that's he's more like the mind-controlling "resisitance is futile" Borg. Beck said he totally agreed that Obama doesn't really love America at all, that he just doesn't think we're "special." Typical Beck stuff, tons of baseless conjecture that only makes sense to people afflicted with Obama Derangement Syndrome.

(I just so happened to be running a lot of errands this morning, so I had Beck on in my car.)

Posted by: zoe kentucky on November 30, 2009 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Seven? All they are hoping for is one to catch fire. That will keep the talking heads in a job for _months_. And then it will be some other shiny object. It will never end.

Posted by: Kevin on November 30, 2009 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

To those who didn't find BHO's Tokyo kowtow "peculiar", I have just two words: Pearl Harbor.

Posted by: Al on November 30, 2009 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Bokonon wrote: "Harris is perfectly willing to serve as the GOP's huckleberry."

More of a Blackberry, right? The owner types, and the tool dutifully and mindlessly passes on the messages.

Posted by: Ken on November 30, 2009 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

If one reads the original Politico article, then it becomes quite clear how these so-called seven revelations for Obama, could easily become 7 revelations for the Bush Administration, with replacing a few words and actual historical examples, such as "incurious" for Bush versus "nuanced" for Obama.

On the whole. I found the article and the author very, very boring. Do yourself a favor and do something much more constructive, say take out the garbage, with your time.

Posted by: dcrolg on November 30, 2009 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

The trouble with the right's brand of American exceptionalism, is that it's the same type thinking as the idiot you see in a bar who believes he's God's gift to women. That kind of mentality doesn't actually get you results.


Posted by: royalblue_tom on November 30, 2009 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, Al...how peculiar did you find it when George Bush was photographed holding hands with Saudi Prince Abdullah? Care to guess the country of origin of the majority of the 19 hijackers? Dipwad.

Posted by: wheresthebeef on November 30, 2009 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Journalism is dying financially and they're all scrambling around to find a niche. Politico has chosen the right for its niche. So has ABC. That is why I quit going to either site for anything. They're not stupid, they're very calculating and if you want to hurt them, quit mentioning their name.

Posted by: Robert Abbott on November 30, 2009 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

As painful a read as it is, that Harris piece serves as well as any short text could to demonstrate the vapid insularity of the Village. From Maureen Dowd being cited as a serious thinker (MoDo and JH are "pals", they were having dinner the night Monica Lewinsky confronted MoDo and left her stammering) to my own personal favorite bit, that Obama is both a thug and wimp:

But some of the same insider circles that are starting to view Obama as a bully are also starting to whisper that he’s a patsy.

Posted by: Jim on November 30, 2009 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

American exceptionalism = acting like an ignorant and arrogant prick putting words before deeds.

We got enough of that during the last eight years, thankyouverymuch.

Posted by: bdop4 on November 30, 2009 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

This sentence is a key part of the problem, though:

For another, the "reviews" of the Asia trip may have been "harsh," but the reality of the trip was far more encouraging.

Most people only ever see the reviews, and thus their "perception" will be that the trip was not only a failure, but actually detrimental to America. You have to dig far deeper than the mainstream media to find out that it was encouraging, and why, and most people are too busy keeping their heads above water to do that.

So Harris's piece can be kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the MSM all echo those seven "themes," it would indeed "undermine President Obama's standing" in the minds of many, possibly a majority of, people. Just because it's absurd doesn't mean that it can't become a problem, without an MSM counter to the "narrative."

Better media, please.

Posted by: KarenJG on November 30, 2009 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

To those who didn't find BHO's Tokyo kowtow "peculiar", I have just two words: Pearl Harbor.

So, you missed all those photos of MacArthur, Eisenhower, and all those other important people bowing to Hirohito in the interests of good manners and sound diplmacy.

They started a war. We finished it. Our homeland took no more damage than a bad run of traffic accidents. They got nuked.

If they can get over losing a war sixty years after it ended, a sane and rational human being should be able to get over winning it. Try therapy.

Posted by: Midland on November 30, 2009 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Journalism has suffered the same fate as the music business. Journalism and the news media is no different than Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert. It's all processed and formulated and canned.

There has ben a concerted effort by the news media to derail, damage and discredit Obama since the moment he took the oath of office. We have a conservative corprorate owned media that promotes the Republicans as the nation's official party. Of course the media will pick up on this and run with it. That's what they're paid to do.

Posted by: Saint Zak on November 30, 2009 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

For Al the troll. A question for Bush 1, calling your bow and raising you one.

Q. Mr. President, I'm just curious whether you, as a World War II veteran who was shot down not all that far from here, felt any sense of unease yesterday appearing before the coffin and bowing before the Emperor and the new Emperor?

The President. "No, I didn't. And I can't say that in the quiet of the ceremony that my mind didn't go back to the wonder of it all, because I vividly remember my wartime experience. And I vividly remember the personal friends that were in our squadron that are no longer alive as a result of combat, a result of action. But my mind didn't dwell on that at all. And what I really thought, if there was any connection to that, is isn't it miraculous what's happened since the war. And I remember the stories, in reading as preparation for this visit -- the visit of MacArthur and the former Emperor here. That was historic, and that set a whole new direction. And MacArthur's decision at that time proved to be correct in terms of Japan's move towards democracy.

And so, I honestly can tell you that I did not dwell on that and didn't feel any sense other than my mind thinking of personal relationships and things of that nature, but nothing to do about whether it was right to be here. I was certain from the day that I committed to come here that this was correct for the United States. And perhaps having been in combat in World War II, maybe the decision was more correct; maybe it was more profound to be here. It leaves out my experience.

I'm representing the United States of America. And we're talking about a friend, and we're talking about an ally. We're talking about a nation with whom we have constructive relationships. Sure, we got some problems, but that was all overriding -- and respect for the Emperor. And remember back in World War II, if you'd have predicted that I would be here, because of the hard feeling and the symbolic nature of the problem back then of the former Emperor's standing, I would have said, ``No way.'' But here we are, and time moves on; and there is a very good lesson for civilized countries in all of this."

Can we get some better trolls please?

http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/research/public_papers.php?id=84&year=1989&month=2

Posted by: Dave on November 30, 2009 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

I saw that silly post on the yahoo front page. Is this the state of American journalism? I may start using google.

Posted by: hornblower on November 30, 2009 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Obama certainly subscribes to the school of American Exceptionalism that believes that we can succeed where everyone else from Alexander the Great onward has failed -- subduing Afganistan.

Posted by: Disputo on November 30, 2009 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Recommended light reading on this topic: Peter Massie's Dreadnought. The posturing, the pouting, the chest-thumping, it's all there. We're turning into Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany.

Posted by: Midland on November 30, 2009 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter John Harris: Here's a bunch of stuff that only the pundit circle-jerk cares about, and if Obama wants the kool kids to like him, he'll care about it too. If he goes for studying and debate team and doesn't help us beat up the nerds, we won't let him hang out with us.

Posted by: Redshift on November 30, 2009 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Slightly longer John Harris: And we'll spread nasty rumors about him, too.

Posted by: Redshift on November 30, 2009 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

What Midland said, except with a slight correction: Dreadnought was written by Robert K. (not Peter) Massie. His other books are excellent as well (at least Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra are, haven't read Castles of Steel yet).

Posted by: QQ More on November 30, 2009 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

That's even lamer than usual for Politico.

Posted by: South Florida Lawyers on November 30, 2009 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

fact, in April, the president was specifically asked about whether he subscribes "to the school of 'American exceptionalism' that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world." Obama offered what struck me as the perfect response: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

Hate to be your troll. Yes but if not us then who? Learn Greek, proper British English and get set to use the pound as your monetary unit.

I think Obama's apology tour was the stupidest thing he ever has done and that is saying alot. Repubs dont have to undermine Obama's standing, he did that all by himself. There is not a single thing that the man has done to unite Americans, rather he has sought to divide them playing class and having his crew play racial games. Sorry someone has to say it. He wont win again. The independents and moderates will see to it. Hes too partisan for us.

Posted by: Obowma LOL on November 30, 2009 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK


There's no evidence that "majorites" are going to vote in the mid-term elections. We know from last week's poll that the angry GOPers and plenty of "independents" who are really Republican in orientation are motivated to vote. The majority who voted Obama into office isn't motivated -- in fact, is being turned off. So the majorities who don't care if Obama bowed don't much matter.

Posted by: Bat of Moon on November 30, 2009 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

Beck said he totally agreed that Obama doesn't really love America at all, that he just doesn't think we're "special." -- zoe kentucky, @13:04

Oh, Beck is "special", all right. As in "special ed"

Posted by: exlibra on November 30, 2009 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

Dave (at 1:37 PM above): Thanks. Nice one. Everyone please read.

Posted by: emjayay on November 30, 2009 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

Harris is a hack. Just check his ridiculous "reporting" on President Clinton.

Posted by: Joe Friday on November 30, 2009 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

To Obowma LOL on November 30, 2009 at 4:25 PM, thanks for admitting you are a troll. You are a particularly stupid one too.

The quote you presented as a revelation was in fact part of Steve Benen's original post in this thread, except your version left out the part where Obama went on to say, "I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.... I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

He sounds a lot less "apologetic" when you don't take his words out of context. If you are going to do so, you could at least choose quotes that aren't available in their more complete version on the same page.

Posted by: tanstaafl on November 30, 2009 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

Ahhh, yes....the "hand of Providence". It's always comforting, in a crazy sort of way, to see a pundit attribute the country's greatness to divine intervention, and to suggest its people continue to rely on it for lasting greatness. Nothing about guts or drive or ingenuity or stubborn unwillingness to accept defeat - nope, we're just going to kick back in the figurative hammock and let The Divine Being do the pick-and-shovel thing. What appalling laziness, not to mention contempt.

And Midland @1:28, your closing paragraph was the best smackdown I've ever read. I could see the spit fly from Al's chops, like in those slow-motion sequences in boxing. It won't discourage him, because he's having fun and the more annoyance he registers, the greater his enjoyment. But it was a fine moment in blogature.

Posted by: Mark on November 30, 2009 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
Not only was it the "perfect response" content-wise, but he said "Greeks" instead of "Grecians." Posted by: navamske on November 30, 2009 at 8:13 PM | PERMALINK

Evidently Fouad Ajami in the WSJ yesterday finds Obama unfortunately and ill advisedly apologetic. Seems even the Arab street finds it distasteful. Here's a full quote from the article:

"Steeped in an overarching idea of American guilt, Mr. Obama and his lieutenants offered nothing less than a doctrine, and a policy, of American penance. No one told Mr. Obama that in the Islamic world, where American power is engaged and so dangerously exposed, it is considered bad form, nay a great moral lapse, to speak ill of one's own tribe when in the midst, and in the lands, of others.

The crowd may have applauded the cavalier way the new steward of American power referred to his predecessor, but in the privacy of their own language they doubtless wondered about his character and his fidelity. "My brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger," goes one of the Arab world's most honored maxims. The stranger who came into their midst and spoke badly of his own was destined to become an object of suspicion."

Posted by: marybel on November 30, 2009 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

I'm betting most Americans (excepting the gunrack-and-18-lights-on-the-pickup crowd), given the choice between being regarded with suspicion and being regarded with undiluted hatred, would choose suspicion. Always assuming that Fouad Ajami speaks for the "Arab Street", and I'd submit there's some doubt about that. In fact, for somebody who suggests self-criticism is a sign of weakness, the author of "The Dream Palace of the Arabs; a Generation's Odyssey" sounds more than a little self-indulgent. Chummy with Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz, not to mention a loyal and vocal supporter of the Iraq war, I'm going out on a limb and suggest the chances of his saying anything remotely positive about Obama are somewhere between zero and nil decimal shit.

It's funny how some are ready to jump on the Arab bandwagon when an Arab (another questionable; the word "Ajam" in Arabic means "non-Arab") says what they want to hear, regardless of its credibility with the Arab world.

Posted by: Mark on November 30, 2009 at 10:07 PM | PERMALINK

I don’t think that the decline in our values began in the 1930’s. Americans showed massive civic virtue during World War II. I think our immense prosperity in the postwar era undermined our values. We also acquired massive expectations that can never be met. In addition, the 1960’s brought much-needed change but also undermined the concept of duty. We suddenly had a mass of rights but no obligations. Now, our national life is based on money, consumption and entertainment. The government, right or left, can do whatever bad things it wants so long as people have those three elements.

xmas gifts

Posted by: lokenkristianna on December 3, 2009 at 4:14 AM | PERMALINK
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