President Obama and American Exceptionalism

President Obama and American Exceptionalism

By Robert Heiler - October 26, 2009

Several pundits have observed that the rhetoric of candidate Barack Obama has differed considerably from the conduct of President Obama's administration. A major part of Obama's campaign appeal, especially to young voters and Independents who helped propel him to victory, was the promise of ushering in a new politics, an escape from partisan rancor in favor of pragmatic problem-solving. But just nine months into his tenure, the old, bare-knuckle politics seems to have been replaced with the Chicago brass-knuckle variety.

Why is Obama acting this way? Why is he failing to live up to the promises of his campaign?

There are two possible reasons: extreme cynicism or breathtaking naiveté. Obama either never intended to behave as he campaigned, or he did intend to. If he never intended to, then he is a cold, calculating manipulator of the political system and the noblest aspirations of the public. But if Obama did intend to transform our politics and is now finding that he is unable to do so, he may be even more dangerous.

Because if Obama really bought all of his own hype, then he must have thought that his opposition and the public would forever remain in the thrall exhibited by some at his campaign rallies. This is what the McCain campaign was getting at with the Paris Hilton Celebrity ad and the "cult of personality" attack. And here is the key to understanding why Obama might have really thought that he could sustain his presidency with the power of personality cult: his utter rejection of American exceptionalism.

Obama once said that he "believe[d] in American exceptionalism, just as I imagine that Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism and the British believe in British exceptionalism." In other words, as Michael Barone recently put it, not at all. But the problem is this: whether Obama believes in it or not, American exceptionalism is a fact on the ground - and it is the principle reason that his cult of personality is unsustainable.

In many countries - as the history of Latin America alone illustrates - the institutions and the culture offer a weak defense against personality cult movements. In America, the defense is strong, buttressed by the First, Second, Fifth, Eighth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution. The "bipartisanship" that Obama envisioned was really "monopartisanship" - a form of one-party rule erected on the foundation of his personal popularity. This vision has been realized periodically throughout history, most recently by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. But achieving it in America is far more difficult, because the Founding Fathers consciously and specifically erected bulwarks against it. Those bulwarks are the source of institutions that resist populist, personality-based, and momentary passions. (The Amendments I named are but a few of the most important ones, but there are others, including the bicameral legislature, and even, originally, the non-direct election of Senators.)

Obama is now discovering that he cannot "heal" our politics, not least because he does not begin to understand them as well as he imagines.

It is worth mentioning here that "bipartisanship" is, in the modern environment, nearly always a bad thing. The public is very rarely of one mind about any important issue. It therefore follows that when its representatives are of one accord, the underlying dynamic is that they have forsaken the left-right continuum of ideology and are behaving according to the up-down continuum of privilege. The elites, in other words, have made a separate peace without regard to the reservations, concerns or protests of the hoi-polloi. Such may in fact be occurring right now in the health care debate, as the Administration's dismissal of town hall protests as inauthentic and barbaric, as well as the left and the media's demeaning of Tea Partiers with a pornographic smear, clearly indicate. Not coincidentally, this dynamic is observable far more frequently in the politics of Europe - which calls into question the existence of Greek and/or British exceptionalism, despite what Greeks, Brits, and Obama might believe.

Obama thought he could sustain his presidency with the power of his words and personality because he abjures American exceptionalism. In the universe he inhabits, such a thing might be possible. But as his flagging poll numbers show, that is not the world as it actually exists.

Robert Heiler is a political speechwriter who worked for McCain-Palin 2008, currently working for House Candidate Keith Fimian in VA-11.

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