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American Exceptionalism Re-Envisioned: Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

By R. Ward Holder and Peter B. Josephson

In April 2009 President Obama was asked about the concept of American exceptionalism, a notion traditionally bound up with manifest destiny and the image of America as a shining city on a hill.  At that time Obama replied “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” At the time it seemed that the president was so redefining the concept of American exceptionalism as to nullify its grandest claims. To do so would have been in keeping with the critique developed by Obama’s favorite philosopher, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In The Irony of American History Niebuhr rejected the claim that the United States was God’s chosen country on God’s mission on earth. To Niebuhr, the idea of America as the city on the hill fulfilling God’s manifest destiny smacked of pride and idolatry. In 2009 it seemed that Obama agreed.

Now comes the 2013 inaugural address. In his fourth sentence the president declares that “What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.” Rather than rejecting American exceptionalism, Obama used his inaugural address to recast the idea in new terms.

Obama declared that Americans “still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity”; that America would not cede new technologies “to other nations” but would “claim its promise” for ourselves; and that it was possible to accomplish peace and security without “perpetual war.”  Alliances and international institutions “extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad.”

In all of this Obama seemed to embrace the exceptionalism Niebuhr decried.  Yet he tempered his exceptionalism in two ways. First, he employed terms reminiscent of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The self-evident truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not, the president said, “self-executing.” They are more like Lincoln’s “proposition” that all men are created equal.  What makes America exceptional is the country’s capacity for reinvention, to meet the new challenges and changed circumstances of each generation.  Put another way, it is the hope for change that makes America special.

Second, Obama described America on a “journey.”  The nation has not arrived at a destination; rather, America represents an ongoing and unfinished work of moral progress.  Obama called for action “knowing that our work will be imperfect.  We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.”

The two themes – of American exceptionalism on the one hand and the nation’s imperfect journey on the other –fit together if we recast the idea of exceptionalism.  In Obama’s hands what makes America most exceptional is its capacity to correct its deeds in keeping with its founding principles – to bend the arc of history a little closer toward justice.  Obama’s new exceptionalism, with self-criticism and an acknowledgement of our partial justice at its core, might be just what Niebuhr had in mind.

Likewise, Obama’s model of post-partisanship went through a seachange.  In January of 2009, in the bright glare of impossible dreams, Barack Obama emphasized the theme that the American government could only face the challenges that confronted the nation by adopting a post-partisan stance.  The urgency of the trials that the country would tackle demanded that there could be no representatives of blue states or red states, because only the servants of the United States could tackle those tests successfully.  For a Christian realist president, one whom many would call Niebuhrian, it was a stark rejection of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought.  Niebuhr (and most other pragmatists in the history of politics), would never countenance the chimerical notion of a post-partisan moment.  Politics does not work that way, even when women and men of good spirit wish otherwise.  But Obama persisted.

Whether one analyzes Obama’s post-partisanship from the right or the left, the results are a dismal failure.  Each side sees different root causes, and different actors to blame.  But whether liberal Democrat or conservative Republican (or even the vanishing breed of moderates), the unique consensus in today’s Wahington is that post-partisanship did not work.  Probably it cannot work – it requires such a surrender of position and ego and belief that it simply fails.

So in January of 2013, with chastened yearnings and tempered dreams, Barack Obama paradoxically became liberal, and more hopeful.  Along the way, he either by design or coincidentally became far more Niebuhrian.  In Niebuhr’s paradoxical account partisanship leads to error, and politics is inherently and unavoidably partisan.  Obama accepted the wisdom that the rules of politics bow for no politician, and set about stating his own ideals for the road ahead.  The preservation of a robust social safety net, an honest engagement with climate change, a continued internationalist presence on the world stage – all of these found prominence in Obama’s speech.

Obama had learned the lesson of Niebuhr’s two-fold test of toleration – being firm in conviction, while acknowledging one’s own imperfection and offering tolerance to the possible insights of others.  Instead of starting from compromise, Obama offered his own convictions.  Whether the coming years show that tolerance (the proof would be in the compromise) remains to be seen.  But the dismissal of the post-partisan position demonstrates far greater maturity and pragmatism than the hopeful but naïve earlier position, perhaps even a Niebuhrian coming of age.

In his 2013 inaugural address, Obama clearly had two heroes in view as he crafted his rhetoric and charted his course.  Obama swore his oath on the Bible of Lincoln and the Bible of King.  Lincoln’s description of a government of, by and for the people rang throughout the speech.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s place was also assured, as Obama took King’s theme of black integrationism and broadened it to create a call for American integrationism, where all citizens of all races and socio-economic classes can receive the guarantees of the founding documents of the American nation, and the promises of the Christian gospel.  But the unnamed and unquoted figure, Reinhold Niebuhr, still is exerting the greatest influence.


Peter Josephson is Associate Professor of Politics at Saint Anselm College, where he holds the Richard L. Bready Chair in Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good. He teaches in the Politics, Humanities, and Philosophy departments. He received his B.A. in Russian and Soviet Studies from Oberlin College, his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire, and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston College, where he was a recipient of the Boston College Excellence in Teaching Award. He is the author of The Great Art of Government: Locke’s Use of Consent, and co-author with R. Ward Holder of The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft, as well as works on politics and popular culture, and the writings of Henry Kissinger. His current research explores the relation between philosophy and classical political liberalism.

R. Ward Holder is a historical theologian, and Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College.  A graduate of Cornell College and Princeton Theological Seminary, he did his doctoral work at Boston College.  Among other works, he has authored John Calvin and the Grounding of Biblical Interpretation: Calvin’s First Commentaries, Brill, 2006; and Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the  Reformations, Westminster John Knox, 2009.  Most recently he has co-authored  with Peter B. Josephson The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft.  His current work focuses on the intersection of faith and politics.

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