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Will American Exceptionalism Sink or Save Obama?

A new Gallup poll out today highlights what could be a problem for Obama going into the 2012 election: his reluctance to embrace the idea of American exceptionalism. According to Gallup’s polling, 37 percent of Americans think that Obama does not “believe the U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”

What makes this dangerous is that Americans are in an anxious and insecure mood these days, seeing a world that doesn’t match up with well-established ideas about American greatness. These days, only 20 percent of Americans think the U.S. has the strongest economy in the world, and only 34 percent expect Americans can get back to the world’s top economy in 20 years. Only 17 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

And yet, despite all this, 80 percent of Americans still believe in America’s unique greatness (73 percent of Democrats, 91 percent of Republicans).

There is a gap here. American exceptionalism is part of our cultural heritage and our self-identification. We believe there is something special about our nation. And yet, something is preventing us from achieving its full potential. What is it? No wonder there is so much anxiety.

The danger is the temptation to blame the wrong causes. The political right has increasingly spinning stories about how big government socialism is preventing America from achieving its true potential, and as The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty recently noted in an excellent round up of Republican talking points on American exceptionalism, “Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

But there is an upside here too, which is that despite the mood of declinism, there is also an underlying base of confidence and resilience. Americans still feel there is something special about this country, which means that there is a narrative on which to build a story of recovery. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. This is America. We can roll up our sleeves and make hard choices about our future.

Can Obama be the leader to make that pivot? The good news is that 58 percent of Americans actually do think Obama believes in America’s unique greatness, including 57 percent of Independents (not surprisingly, 83 percent of Dems but only 34 percent of Republicans think Obama believes this). Not overwhelming, but at least it’s a start.

As numerous commentators have noted, the Obama administration is in need of an overarching narrative, a coherent and aspirational story about the direction in which he is trying to take the country. Recently, Obama tried out a “Sputnik Moment” trope in speeches. Though it hasn’t exactly caught on (and the analogy is a bit strained), at least he’s thinking along the right lines.

American greatness does not have to be a jingoistic tool of the political right. It can also be a powerful set of ideas for Obama to tap into about how we don’t have to give into declinism, and how we can indeed get America moving again because always have. We’re special like that.


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