the state of the union: exceptional

I liked it. It wasn’t a game-changing speech: it wasn’t touching like the Tucson speech, or one for the ages like the speech he gave on race in 2008. But he did something that I’ve been waiting for someone to do for awhile. He reclaimed the idea of “American Exceptionalism” from the exclusive domain of the Republicans (or at least he tried to; we’ll see if he succeeded).

I’ve been looking for this for awhile because despite all of the talk about “American Exceptionalism” and the claims that Obama didn’t believe in said exceptionalism, there has never really been a discussion of what exactly it is that makes America exceptional. People know what the idea of exceptionalism means for us: we’re the world’s largest economy, we’re a young country that has quickly achieved world dominance, we have freedoms and an economy that are the envy of people the world over. But all of these are effects of exceptionalism. What Obama did was make an argument for the government as the foundation upon which this exceptionalism is based.

I think that this idea is important, and needs to be highlighted. The biggest benefit of tying these two together, in my mind, is that it would encourage more mature discussion about the future of this country. As I’ve written before, I think the biggest failure of civility in our discourse is the demonization of the other side. In framing the Democratic agenda tonight, Obama made the case for how that agenda is entirely consistent with the things in our history that have made us great. It’s not enough just to be great, we need to continue to invest in those things that have, historically, allowed the American spirit to flourish: good public schools, a strong infrastructure, and support for research and development of cutting edge science and technology.

I watched Congressman Ryan’s response, as well. I was disappointed, not in the content, but in the doomsday scenarios. It provides an interesting contrast, I think, to Obama’s focus on what he thinks makes America strong. We have the party of “Rah Rah America!” sitting here saying that America cant possibly survive the continued governance of the Democrats. Democrats will drive America into the ground. Does he really have so little faith in America? America is strong, and neither party is strong enough to bring the country to her knees.

Someone's got to do it. Paul Ryan totally dropped the ball. GO PACK! (Image from

And one final note: if I ever get to give a response to a State of the Union two days after my state’s football team wins the NFC Championship and I don’t give them a shoutout, I hope the people of my district (I’m looking at YOU Janesville…) vote me out of office. Honestly, Congressman Ryan.

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6 Responses to the state of the union: exceptional

  1. tjphantom says:

    but who’s to say that belief in American Exceptionalism is such a great thing anyhow? rather than get into it, i’ll just say, “see: Larison.”

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention the state of the union: exceptional | argumentum ad cerebrum --

  3. Steph says:

    It didn’t shock me at all that Paul Ryan used his response as a vehicle to repeat the intro to his “Roadmap” proposal on deficit reduction. I agree that the doomsday talk seemed a little jarring and out of place in the context of the SOTU but in isolation, I don’t think it was unexpected or even unwarranted. Rather, it’s the standard political theater required to get anyone to seriously listed to deficit reduction proposals. I think you can expect a lot more of the same from Ryan in the next year.

    I agree with your point about Obama’s success describing the government as the foundation for America’s success. Where I think Obama fell short was in making the case for expanding on something in particular. His speech, to me, came off more as “let’s just do what we did before and hope it works again” than what I would have like to hear, something like “these are the particular areas we should invest in now, given our current economic situation and the global environment, because they will help us recover/grow/be exceptional/lead the world/succeed in whatever way now more than ever”.

  4. JB says:

    @Steph – interesting point re: a particular area of improvement. My sense is that if Obama drove home one particular topic, that would give the other side an opportunity to criticize or even demonize. As opposed to drawing a focus, which would likely be controversial based on party preference, I think Obama was clever to speak broadly, calling for people to embrace the system and appreciate the foundation that it has given us.

  5. Sally says:

    I appreciate that Obama brought up sacrifice. Everybody will have to make some sacrifice- spending and deficit reduction – but hopefully not on the backs of the poor or disenfranchised. I believe politicians need to inspire us to give to make the country strong and exceptional; too often they only promise what we will get, at high cost to those without a powerful voice in politics. Inspiration is important. I hope he is not afraid to keep pushing the positive reasons that we need to look at the future and what we want for all Americans – and what we really have to do to get there.

  6. Nicholas Kramer says:

    A response from the former mayor of Salt Lake City on Democracy Now

    “ROCKY ANDERSON: Well, I listened to every word very carefully, and he has a great way of presenting himself, but there was so much missing and so many major disconnects. We’re at a time in our country where we need to define who we are, where we’re headed, what we have become. He didn’t mention human rights at a time when he has assassination lists for the first time in our nation’s history, that include U.S. citizens. No due process—we don’t just have indefinite detention anymore; we just go out, put their name on a list, and kill them. The invocation of state secrets, it’s absolutely obliterated any notion of checks and balances. Our courts have been removed from that equation, by and large, when it comes to torture, when it comes to warrantless wiretapping by our government. No discussion about that, of course. And we’re seeing, really, an institutionalization by this president of some of the worst abuses and what we, a lot of us, thought were just aberrations during the Bush years.

    But also, the disconnect between saying that we’re at a “Sputnik moment,” we’re going to make all these great investments and build our economy, and then, what’s he building the economy on? He says it’s based on tax cuts. He sounded like Ronald Reagan. It sounded like trickle-down economics. And how do you freeze domestic annual spending and at the same time make these tremendous investments that are needed in our infrastructure and doing what’s required to get people back to work? He didn’t mention the middle class, the huge disparity between the very wealthy—there hasn’t been a greater disparity in this country in wealth and income since the 1920s. The top one percent have more net wealth than the bottom 90 percent in this country. These are the basics; these are the fundamentals. And it was all ignored. And it really seems that these two parties, bought and paid for by the same interests, by and large, are not providing the kinds of solutions or addressing the fundamentals that the American people are most interested in, that impact the American people the most.

    And then, of course, I heard the word “purpose” when he was talking about Afghanistan. And I thought, finally we’re going to hear an explication by the President of the United States about why we’re there. And then it wasn’t there at all. He talked—in one sentence, it was basically just an aside about how we’re seeking to control the Taliban to stop al-Qaeda, ignoring, it seems, the fact that al-Qaeda has become the cellular network around the world, driven in large part, probably in greatest part, by the fact that the United States has invaded and occupied these Muslim countries and continues to kill innocent Muslim civilians.”

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