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Obama in a Leading Role: Would You (Re-)Nominate Him?

January 25, 2012

Following hot on the heels of the newly announced Oscar nominees, the State of the Union was one of Tuesday’s most anticipated events. All the world was a stage, or at least the joint session of Congress was. All the men and women were merely players, or at least Newt Gingrich’s second ex-wife says he was.

Just five weeks after Time designated “The Protestor” as its person of the year, the President passed on the opportunity to give us a similar compliment. In fact, he was delighted to inform us that we really had learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten. “Millions of Americans… work hard and play by the rules every day,” he said, and for this we:

deserve a Government and a financial system that do the same. It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.

“Splendid!” you’re surely thinking to yourself. “I’ll get the milk and cookies, which I brought enough of for everybody.”

This striking turn away from American exceptionalism, which was last mentioned on the blog in connection with Pat Toomey, continues throughout the State of the Union. Of course, the 99% aren’t the only ones who should be playing by the rules:

And I will not stand by when our competitors don’t play by the rules. We’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration – and it’s made a difference.

And I will not go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules. The new rules we passed restore what should be any financial system’s core purpose: Getting funding to entrepreneurs with the best ideas, and getting loans to responsible families who want to buy a home, start a business, or send a kid to college.

As satisfying as it is to know that it might finally be Wall Street’s turn to bring snack next week, why should Obama stay away from the warm fuzzies released in the invocation of American exceptionalism? It doesn’t make sense, considering that the State of the Union is the President’s most public opportunity to tell us what he’s been doing right and tell us what he plans to do to fix everything else. (This cynical view of the President’s purpose in the State of the Union is shared, unsurprisingly, by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels in his Republican Address to the Nation on Tuesday.) But never fear, for American exceptionalism is more complicated than you think. It isn’t all about showing Mother England what’s what in 1776 and later declaring Manifest Destiny.

Kazin and McCartin, the editors of Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal, have identified two strands of American exceptionalism in public rhetoric: (1) “what is distinctive about the United States” and (2) “loyalty to that nation, rooted in a defense of its political ideals.” They further elaborate on this second strand, which I think is the motivation behind Obama’s rule-playing, as using ideals as standardsmuch like working together and following the rules. The danger in following this version instead of the other, more good ol’ days one, is that it can so easily ring hollow and unattainable in a way that the Revolutionary War doesn’t because it, well, happened.

So, did playing by the rules ring hollow for you? Do you think Barack Obama should be in the running for Best Presidential Candidate in a Leading Role?

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