EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
The phrase “American exceptionalism” has become a quintessential crisis term. it indicates not the certainty we associate with superpower but the dread that this power is dissipating. It’s arrogant, as many critics point out; that arrogance, however, masks self-doubt. If it were possible to do a Google search to correlate words with emotion, the feeling most associated with the term today would be anxiety, the fear that comes when the world turns suddenly unfamiliar and the ground gives way under your feet—as happened, for many, when a black man was elected president of the United States.
Barack Obama entered the White House in early 2009, in the midst of one of the worst crises in American history, brought about by the combined disasters of neoliberal financial deregulation and neoconservative militarism. Even before he was elected president, early in the 2007–8 primary season, it was Obama—not his main Democratic competitors, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards—who became the standard-bearer of American exceptionalism: “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he told a New York Times columnist a month before the Iowa caucus in January 2008. “Listen to his campaign speeches,” said Douglas Wilder, then the mayor of Richmond, Virginia, in February 2008, “and you will hear something not heard often enough at Democratic rallies: the crowd chanting ‘U-S-A’ and the speaker making the case for American exceptionalism.”
On the stump, Obama offered an inclusive vision of patriotism, using his own success to celebrate the country’s meritocracy and as proof that racial division could be overcome through the gradual extension of liberal political equality. “Our exceptionalism,” he said in 2008, “must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values, and our ideals.” For decades, going back to the triumph of Reagan in 1980, liberal Democrats had advanced similar themes, in the hopes of reclaiming the mantle of patriotism from Republicans.
Obama, however, invoked the exceptionalism of the United States less as a rearguard action against ascendant Republican nationalism than as a calming technique, a way to normalize his threatening self. The intensity of the birther movement’s racism can only be understood once we realize that it was driven not by a belief that Obama was a foreigner, but by an intuitive recognition that he was archetypally American—albeit with a biography that reminds us of our slaver, settler, neocolonial, imperial, and militaristic past. He was born in Hawaii—which was annexed by the United States in the late 19th century, after Washington supported a planter overthrow of the indigenous sovereign—in August 1961, just two years after that colony became a state. His mother was an anthropologist—a suspect discipline if ever there was one—and his father a left-wing, anticolonial Kenyan economist who had immigrated to Hawaii largely because of the political turmoil sparked by US Cold War machinations in Central Africa (just a few months before Obama’s birth, the CIA had helped assassinate Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—one of the most consequential political killings of the 20th century). He was raised in Indonesia in the late 1960s, shortly after the CIA helped engineer a genocidal coup in that country, which resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands. And he identifies as an African American. Obama’s very being serves as an avatar of a history that had long been erased from public discourse. Dinesh D’Souza, in best sellers like The Roots of Obama’s Rage and Obama’s America, has carved out a late-career niche tapping into America’s mass social projection, attributing the settler-colonial frenzy that motivates much of the right to Obama himself.