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The rise of the Tea Party movement has seen a renewed interest in the idea of American exceptionalism–the belief that ours is a nation set apart, a “shining city on a hill,” as Ronald Reagan always called her. Tuesday, President Obama embraced the language of American exceptionalism–and harnessed it for a sustained argument in defense of activist government. The question before the Congress, Obama said, is “whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.” Good start. He continued with the theme:
…for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.
What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea–the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That is why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here. It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
And Obama continued:
…What we can do–what America does better than anyone–is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.
All this sounded solidly Reaganesque. But then Obama showed his hand, launching into a sustained defense of government spending (under the guise of “investment”). In the face of Republican calls to scale back his fiscal excesses of the past two years, Obama proposed a raft of new spending on areas such as technology, renewable energy, education, and infrastructure.
Our infrastructure used to be the best–but our lead has slipped….We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system….Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.
All of a sudden it became clear: Obama was harnessing American exceptionalism to sell a second stimulus.
Even when he told the inspiring story of Robert and Gary Allen–the Michigan roofers who volunteered to help repair the Pentagon and reinvented their struggling business as a manufacturer of solar panels–he slipped in that they did it “with the help of a government loan,” adding, “That’s what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves.” Yes, for over 200 years we have reinvented ourselves with government loans.
Obama embraced the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility: “The final step–a critical step–in winning the future is to make sure we aren’t buried under a mountain of debt. We are living with a legacy of deficit spending that began almost a decade ago.” (Note the obligatory shot at George W. Bush.) “But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable.”
That was encouraging–until we heard his solution: “[T]onight, I am proposing that, starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.” Yes, while Republicans want to scale back spending to 2008 (read: pre-Obama) levels, he wants to freeze in place all the new spending Obama and congressional Democrats enacted over the past two years. The problem, as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) pointed out in his Republican response, is that, “Since taking office, President Obama has signed into law spending increases of nearly 25 percent for domestic government agencies–an 84 percent increase when you include the failed stimulus. All of this new government spending was sold as ‘investment.'”
Obama promised that “In the coming year, we will also work to rebuild people’s faith in the institution of government” by making it “more competent and efficient.” And he concluded where he began–with a celebration of America the Exceptional:
We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools; changing the way we use energy; reducing our deficit–none of this is easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The cost. The details. The letter of every law…. And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.
We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything’s possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.
That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working class kid from Scranton can stand behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.
An elegant touch, that tribute to Speaker Boehner. But what made his speech truly exceptional was his attempt to harness the language of American exceptionalism in defense of big government.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.
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