‘What makes America exceptional’

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Following up on Tricia’s “Morning Maddow” post, I imagine there were quite a few folks who’d gone to bed by the time President Obama took the stage in Chicago to deliver his victory speech. The remarks were delayed because Mitt Romney was initially reluctant to concede, and the president didn’t begin speaking until around 1:30 a.m. eastern.

And in a way, that’s a shame, because to my ear, this was one of Obama’s greatest speeches.

I liked Ezra’s take on this.

The Obama campaign found that their key voters were turned off by soaring rhetoric and big plans. They’d lowered their expectations, and they responded better when Obama appeared to have lowered his expectations, too. And so he did. The candidate of hope and change became the candidate of modest plans and achievable goals. Rather than stopping the rise of the oceans – which sounded rather more fantastical before Sandy – Obama promised to train more teachers and boost manufacturing jobs.

What you saw tonight, however, was that Obama didn’t much like being that guy. He still wants to be the guy he was in 2008. He still wants to inspire and to unite. He still wants Americans to feel that the arc of history is bending under their pressure. He still wants to talk about climate change and election reform and other problems that the Senate is not especially eager to solve.

And so, at 2 a.m., the nation got to see that uplifting-circa-2008 version of Obama, and it was a sight to behold.

The whole thing is about 22 minutes, and I think it’s well worth your time, but there was one portion in particular that stuck in my head once it was over.

“This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our university and culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

“What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth – the belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations; that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for comes with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”

If you’re not especially familiar with conservative talking points, the right has been preoccupied for the last several years with the notion of “American exceptionalism,” and their concern that Obama doesn’t embrace the concept to their satisfaction. (Remember when Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) flirted with birtherism? He ultimately walked it back, but added, “I don’t believe the president shares my belief in American exceptionalism.”)

Even when the president began touting exceptionalist themes more explicitly, conservatives weren’t satisfied. Kathleen Parker argued nearly two years ago that unless Obama uses the word “exceptionalism” literally and repeatedly, the president’s motivations deserve to be held suspect. Conservatives, she said, “long to hear” the word, not just the principles behind the word. Obama, Parker added, “studiously avoided using the word” and asks, “So why won’t Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?”

In reality, Obama is the only president in American history to publicly use the magical phrase “American exceptionalism,” but even that didn’t seem to make the right happy.

Which is why I was delighted by this portion of Obama’s speech last night – he touted “what makes America exceptional,” but then defined it the way he wanted to.

The right wants to talk about exceptionalism? Fine – America’s exceptional because of our progressive ideals, including our “obligations to one another” and our “responsibilities” to our country. The right doesn’t own the principle of exceptionalism; this was the president’s way of embracing it on his own terms.

It was vintage Obama, and the rhetoric soared.

'What makes America exceptional'

Updated