Ex­cep­tional by omis­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - KATH­LEEN­PARKER kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

He didn’t say it. That word: “ex­cep­tional.” Barack Obama de­scribed an ex­cep­tional nation in his State of the Union ad­dress, but he stu­diously avoided us­ing the word con­ser­va­tives long to hear.

It’s a funny thing, this fo­cus on a sin­gle word that isn’t much heard from this pres­i­dent but that tum­bles so eas­ily — and adamantly — from the lips of Repub­li­can con­tenders for his ti­tle.

We’re go­ing to be hear­ing it a lot in the com­ing months as Repub­li­cans try to out-ex­cep­tion­al­ize each other for the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. Ex­hausted al­ready?

The ex­cep­tional is­sue may be po­lit­i­cal, but it isn’t only that. The idea lies smack at the heart of how Amer­i­cans view them­selves, and the role of govern­ment in their lives and in the broader world. Is Amer­ica ex­cep­tional or isn’t she? Is there some­thing about this coun­try that makes us unique in the world?

Of course there is, and Obama has fre­quently ac­knowl­edged those things, in­clud­ing in the State of the Union. But he seems to avoid the word be­cause, among other pos­si­ble rea­sons, it is fraught with lay­ers of mean­ing and be­cause, to some minds, there’s al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity he doesn’t quite be­lieve it. A De­cem­ber poll (USA To­day-Gallup) found that 37 per­cent of Amer­i­cans don’t think Obama be­lieves that the “U.S. has a unique char­ac­ter that makes it the great­est coun­try in the world.”

This nev­er­the­less leaves a ma­jor­ity— 58 per­cent — who do think he be­lieves it, com­pared with 86 per­cent who thought Ron­ald Rea­gan did, fol­lowed by Bill Clin­ton (77) and Ge­orge W. Bush (74).

On the right, the word “ex­cep­tional” — or “ex­cep­tion­al­ism” — lately has be­come a lit­mus test for pa­tri­o­tism. It’s the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edi­tion of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. To many on the left, it has be­come birther code for “ he’s not one of us.”

Be­tween left and right, how­ever, are those who merely want af­fir­ma­tion that all is right with the world. Most im­por­tant, they want as­sur­ance that the pres­i­dent shares their val­ues. So why won’t Obama just de­liver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?

I asked House Speaker John Boehner that ques­tion in a re­cent in­ter­view, cu­ri­ous to see how he’d ex­plain the chasm be­tween Democrats who see no need to talk of ex­cep­tion­al­ism and Repub­li­cans who con­sider it cru­cial to their na­tional iden­tity.

Boehner said that ei­ther “ the left” seems afraid of the word or, per­haps, they don’t be­lieve it. This caused a small tem­pest of protest in some quar­ters.

Obama did in­deed speak of Amer­ica’s unique­ness, even rec­og­niz­ing Boehner, who grew up with­out priv­i­lege to be­come the third-most pow­er­ful per­son in govern­ment, as an ex­em­plar of the Amer­i­can dream.

Do we make too much of a sin­gle word?

Ex­cep­tion­al­ism be­came ra­dioac­tive a cou­ple of years ago when Obama was asked at an over­seas news con­fer­ence whether he sub­scribes to “ the school of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism that sees Amer­ica as uniquely qual­i­fied to lead the world.” His an­swer has haunted him since: “I be­lieve in Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, just as I sus­pect that the Brits be­lieve in Bri­tish ex­cep­tion­al­ism and the Greeks be­lieve in Greek ex­cep­tion­al­ism.”

I re­mem­ber think­ing at the time: Bzzzzt. Wrong, Har­vard. That is not the cor­rect an­swer. There was more to his re­sponse, in fact, but the im­pres­sion was al­ready set.

What Obama added was that “we have a core set of val­ues that are en­shrined in our Con­sti­tu­tion, in our body of law, in our demo­cratic prac­tices, in our be­lief in free speech and equal­ity, that, though im­per­fect, are ex­cep­tional.” Not so hard to say af­ter all? Call­ing one­self ex­cep­tional inar­guably is prob­lem­atic in the midst of an on­go­ing fi­nan­cial cri­sis; two wars that have re­sulted in un­ten­able ca­su­al­ties; and crip­pling debt and deficits that be­tray the trust of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions and be­hold us to China.

It also may feel jin­go­is­tic and in­ap­pro­pri­ate in these global times for one nation to set it­self apart for self-ad­mi­ra­tion.

We mustn’t brag, af­ter all. Great na­tions don’t have to re­mind oth­ers of their great­ness. They merely have to be great.

Whether to take ex­cep­tion to ex­cep­tion­al­ism is an in­ter­est­ing prob­lem for the pres­i­dent and the nation. Per­haps it is best re­solved through a pres­i­den­tial ad­dress in which Obama takes pos­ses­sion of the word and set­tles the ques­tion once and for all: What does Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism mean in to­day’s world?

Mr. Pres­i­dent?

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