"These things are old":

Obama and the end of exceptionalism

posted by Thomas L. Dumm


Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Back in the fall of 2008, I talked to alumni of Amherst College in San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and spoke about theories of the American presidencies, leaning a lot on the work of a Yale professor named Steven Skowronek. In The Politics Presidents Make, he argued that presidencies exist within two timeframes: a cyclical timeframe which adheres more or less to the scheme of critical elections, and what he calls “secular time.” The latter has to do with the historical development of the United States—a tiny, fragile, vulnerable country that, through the exploitation of slaves and immigrant labor, the destruction of Native Americans, and the great good luck of rich natural resources, as well as the hard work and genius of many good people, evolved into an imperial power during the late-nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. This expansion occurred with an accompanying extraordinary growth of military, bureaucracy, and the centralization of power. The immense web of laws and regulations, the growth of the welfare state, and the recession of the European powers as a result of WWII enabled the United States to become the great global power of the twentieth century.

In the last part of that century we overextended ourselves in many ways, as all empires do. The intensified power of the great, organized interests—since the advent of neo-liberalism, the immense corporations—created a large permanent national government joined at the hip with private powers. Globalization has been the result of that neo-liberalism, and helped transform the United States into the debtor nation that it now is. This development, coupled with an increasingly polarized political climate that was in part brought about by that very growth, and that has been exacerbated by the emergence of new forms of electronic media, has increasingly diminished the ability of presidents over this secular time to fundamentally shift the direction of government. As Theodore Lowi, a teacher of both Skowronek and myself, argued in a book called The Personal President, presidents must act immediately to fulfill their campaign pledges while they have a window of opportunity, and that over the past century that window of opportunity has grown more and more narrow, so that what a president now does in the earliest days of his or her administration largely is all that he or she will be able to do.  Moreover, as things continue to get worse for the majority, during their campaigns presidents must promise more than they can deliver. They are helpless giants, in a sense, buffeted by forces beyond their control, unable to respond to an increasingly deep crisis brought about in part by the very success of the country in becoming what it is.

The question back in the fall, when we imagined Obama might be elected, was, how much time would he have to enact his agenda? That is, given the depth of our problems, what would he be able to do, how much patience would the American people have, and how much support would he be able to garner from the Congress? (This is of course a different question, because the gap between what the public wants and what the members of Congress want have rarely been larger than they are now.)

What does any of this have to do with the question of this symposium? When Obama said, “Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old.  These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history,” he was of course evoking the idea of American exceptionalism, a claim that we are possessed of distinctive values that, in times of crisis, come to the fore, and then inspire us to save our sorry asses.

Presidents are compelled to use the language of exceptionalism in two important ways. If our presidents are to be believed, we are always doing something New and something Great. We have had, in the past eighty years, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, the New Nixon, Morning in America, A Thousand Points of Light, a New Covenant, a Bridge to Tomorrow, and Compassionate Conservatism, and now we have a New Foundation. These slogans are made to do a lot of work, in that they suggest another word that became the brand of the Obama campaign last year: change. This rhetoric reflects an interesting fact: while it is common for us to claim that there is no real progressivism in the United States anymore, the truth is that both ruling parties for the past eighty years have had to envelop themselves in a rhetoric of progressive change or transformation in order to be credible with the American people, who are deeply addicted to Newness and Greatness.

At the same time, and indeed as a part of the rhetoric of exceptionalism, presidents constantly invoke the Constitution as the rock upon which this church of America is built. The Constitution, whether you believe it to be a living document (Justice Breyer) or a dead one (Justice Scalia), is the ultimate foundation upon which all renewal is supposed to take place. No one can question it, especially the core of it, though many are incredibly inventive in interpreting it.

Obama has thus far followed pretty much the same pattern as all modern presidents, though he is far more competent than his predecessor. In terms of the length of Lowi’s window of opportunity, Obama has been remarkably successful at enacting key parts of his agenda early on, while sustaining a continued high level of popularity with the American people. And his presidency effectively began early, given the collapse of the Bush administration in the interim between the election and the inauguration. But the enactment of the stimulus package, the successful extension of TARP monies, the credit reform, and the beginning of the health program have created a sense of momentum that has so far served Obama’s administration well. Moreover, most of Obama’s initiatives on foreign policy have been embraced, so far, at least, by the public. In part, all of this early success is due to the weakened condition of the GOP in Congress and nationally, but it is also a testimony to the political skills of Obama and his team of advisors.

But despite these advances, the language of his Inaugural Address demanded much more than Obama has been able to produce. Our crisis is not simply one of spirit: the United States is facing a decline, as is inevitable for imperial powers, and how that decline is to be addressed needs to be at the heart of this presidency. And in this regard, Obama is little different than George Bush in the two arenas of power that matter most: economic policy and national security policy.

Let me stipulate—I think the offenses against the Constitution in so many of the actions taken by the Bush administration were outrageous, and indeed, I would judge them to warrant criminal trials. But I also find it telling that President Obama is trying to prevent the serious investigation of these alleged crimes. And I find it equally telling that he is trying to figure out a way to evade the constitutional requirement of habeas corpus by suggesting that the indefinite detention of some of the Gitmo prisoners—some who cannot go on trial because the evidence was tainted as a result of torturous interrogation—may need to continue to be policy. Moreover, I have noticed that we now have members of the Obama administration suggesting that we may need to continue our occupation of Iraq for up to ten more years, and that we need to build a Green Zone-like American Embassy in Kabul. While couched in much softer rhetoric, and with more diplomatic approaches to the Arab world than his fundamentalist Christian predecessor, Obama has not separated himself from President Bush’s policy, especially Bush’s second term policy, when it became clearer that, as they say, the jig was up, and the cover-up of these policies had to be coupled with a dismantling of the worst abuses.

On the domestic side of the ledger, while the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court signals a mild willingness to begin to constrain corporate abuses of power, the larger frame again indicates as much continuity with the Bush administration as departure. Banks too big to fail, cooperation with health insurance giants, a TARP fund that gives to the rich and steals from the rest of us, no real relief for those who were victimized by subprime mortgages, none of these abuses of capitalism are being attacked for what they are.

Why is it that there are these key continuities in crucial areas of policy, some of which Obama vehemently opposed when he was running for president, and continues to oppose at the level of rhetoric? After all, he is supposedly constrained by the Constitution, compelled, if he is to obey the law himself, to dismantle these illegal security policies. And while the rape of the Treasury (I was fascinated to learn the term “moral hazard” during the free fall of last autumn) may not be unconstitutional, or even necessarily illegal, it does go hand in hand with the need to prop up a financial system that is almost completely beyond the control of a supposedly democratic state.

But here’s the thing. Since World War II, every president has violated the Constitution in matters consequential enough to result, if one were to be a stickler at all, in impeachment. Truman seized the steel mills, Eisenhower secretly threatened nuclear war against the Chinese, and JFK ordered assassinations. LBJ was responsible for the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon for Watergate, and I suspect that a condition for Nixon stepping down was the pardon Ford issued. Reagan had the Iran-contra affair, and Clinton overstepped Congress in going to war in the Balkans. Bush—well, we’ve been there.

Notice that the serious offenses are all connected to foreign policy. But they are also connected with the politics of the Cold War, and then the politics of globalization. In all cases, presidents felt frustrated either by statutory constraints, or by the slowness of Congress to approve, or by the need to wave bloody flags in order to get Congress to move. What am I suggesting?

We believe in the Constitution, and we believe in the special fate of America. But we’ve not necessarily been well served by either belief during the past half-century. Obama, if he is to be the great president his ardent supporters want him to be, may well need to imitate another great leader from the past. We need to look for a leader who has managed the decline of an imperial power, without destroying the world. I am referring to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who spoke the truth and led the Russian people past a system of government that no longer could be imagined to serve them. Too expensive, too corrupt, falling from its own weight, bankrupt financially, foolishly nationalistic—that country was the most dangerous country in the world at the time, as much because of its delusions as because of its destructive power.

The United States, of course, is not the same as the Soviet Union was. Empires decline on their own timetables and in their own ways. American renewal in the Obama years may involve a new rhetoric of unity, may involve a vast rebuilding of our infrastructure in more environmentally sound ways, and may involve a renewed resolve to secure the United States against the terror that lurks in a way that doesn’t shame us. But, and this is a big but, if we do not learn to live more humble lives, in diminished circumstances, and replace our foolish dreams of a return to the American century past, we will suffer a lot more than we will if we finally face the truth about the damage we have done to ourselves, the obsolete character of our governing institutions, and the failure of democracy that we have suffered in order to acquire this strange empire we are now losing. As Obama also said in his speech, it is time to put away childish things.

Such a task calls for a great leader, one who will be willing to engage in the sort of sacrifice that Obama, for all his gifts, has not yet shown himself willing to make. Putting away childish things means growing up. Growing up means speaking first, sticking your neck out, saying what is true and just regardless of the consequences for yourself. Obama, I fear, has yet to grow up.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]

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5 Responses to “Obama and the end of exceptionalism”

  1. In Thomas Dumm’s article there emerges a certain sense of tragic inevitability about the decline of America as a country. All countries after all, “decline in their own timetables and in their own ways.” Incorporated in America’s mythical conception of itself however, is a conviction that as a nation we possess something enduring and indestructible because of its transcendent truth. Freedom for instance, is conceived as worthy of protection so that it remains accessible to all citizens and theoretically all people. There is something that we stand for which time and trial cannot kill at the root. If this is the case, then America has something to offer which belongs to all nations and their people; a thought that should inform the formation and execution of foreign policy and diplomacy. If we claim to uphold the fundamental ideologies of equality and liberty then we must recognize that they inherently extend to all people, all countries and all ethnic groups. If these ideologies do not speak for all of humanity I do not think they can ever adequately speak for an America that increasingly reflects the image of a global community within its new and native citizenry.

    The addiction to newness that Dumm refers to it is not necessarily a negative component to an American identity; regeneration, re-birth and transformation are all powerfully effective themes for humanity and have inspired projects of immense difficulty and tremendous benefit for many. It is this addiction or attraction to newness that will be useful in the formation of a new American identity, one in which our voice will not be the loudest in a chorus of international concerns and global initiatives. America has been described by Obama and others as being in a time of crisis and at a pivotal point in regards to its own future success and well being. The challenges that America faces however are not simply of internal import, they are of global significance. No one leader or even the entire American populace can single handedly tidy up the economic and environmental injustice that strains the country, for the nature of the modern world is marked by inextricable links and relationships between industrialized nations. American needs to find its place amidst a pantheon of powers and finally relinquish its self prophetic vision as omnipotent savior and benevolent leader of the world.

    I will also suggest that decline need not be perceived as so catastrophic an occurrence. Dumm points out that what we need at this point is someone to manage our decline without destroying the world, and I agree with this statement. Yet what if our decline as a superpower that greatly affects the welfare of so many millions worldwide, signals only a more equitable distribution of power and political efficacy? It is an error I think to cast ourselves as the super hero in a world drama trying to reclaim his infallible identity and use his power for good before another country (or superhero) uses it for evil. Prevalent in some of the discourse about the possible decline of America as a super power is the idea of its right to power, despite countless examples of its insufficiency as the world’s sole arbiter of justice and charity. Obama will indeed have to face the possibility of America’s decline as a superpower but this in itself may not be the challenge.

    Can America maintain a sense of its exceptionalism in a world in which it is not the mightiest, or is the age of exceptionalism, as the author suggests, passing away altogether? Even if Obama’s task is not to place America once again on a pedestal of benevolence and power, a test that requires his dynamic leadership is still at hand. Obama’s greatest accomplishment could be to help Americans realize the effectiveness of embracing our weaknesses and allying our frailties to the strengths and wisdom of other nations. It is a transformation that does not require us to abandon what is beneficial in our power or what remains valuable in the enduring things of “old”.

  2. avatar Welbith Mota says:

    I would like to comment on one particular point made by Mr. Dumm. It revolves around his enquiry into the relationship between the notion of maturity and Obama.

    Mr. Dumm states that “putting away childish things means growing up.” He says that “Growing up means speaking first, sticking your neck out, and saying what is true and just regardless of the consequences for yourself.” Mr. Dumm concludes by noting that the president has yet to do these things, and therefore “has yet to grow up.”

    But I do not believe that Mr. Dumm thinks of Obama as infantile.

    In fact, given Mr. Dumm’s entire analyses, it seems to me that he himself must (and does) acknowledge the President’s unique sensibility to the responsibilities of being an adult.

    But since the issue is not so much the President’s (im)maturity, what is it? Mr. Dumm knows exactly:

    …If WE do not learn to live more humble lives…and replace our foolish dreams…WE will suffer…WE will if WE finally face the truth….WE… WE have suffered in order to acquire this strange empire WE are now losing…it is time [THAT WE]… put away childish things.

    In other words, the real, and much more complex issue is that Mr. Obama is the political leader of an immature nation, a citizenry composed of a people who, for various reasons, have proudly shut the door on maturity. A people described by Cornell West as “sleepwalkers.”

    It does not seem preposterous to suggest that America is seeing the vast majority of its citizens skip adulthood altogether, resulting in what appears to be a society made up of mostly children-adults—i.e., folks who wish to lead forever jejune lives. Individuals who do not wish to take on the responsibilities of democratic adulthood. And while one can understand the hesitation and concerns, in the end, enough of these people create a citizenry that is made up of tall, adulterated children, and, by definition, a corrupt state.

    Alone, no President can change the direction of this nation. For that we need a mature citizenry as well. We need people who are not afraid of being critical, we need an army of folks that are committed not only to their own happiness, but to the happiness of others; it will require individuals to be in tune with the misery and suffering of other bodies and things (both at home home, home, and abroad). In short, we need a citizenry committed to retaining a child’s sense of play, curiosity, and compassion. Perhaps most importantly, we need folks that fully accept the difficult responsibilities that come with living in a so-called democratic system.

  3. avatar Joey Krevolin says:

    Throughout his piece, Dumm discusses many issues that America is facing and how our president has, will, and should handle these situations. Dumm compares Obama’s presidency to those of the other “modern presidents,” as well as juxtaposing America’s dire economic situation to the collapse of the Soviet Union. While these comparisons are valid in ways, it is important to note that Dumm also suggests that new issues are handled in new ways. For example, the demise of our current economical state compared to that of the Soviet Union’s under Gorbachev, or JFK’s ordered assassinations and Watergate. While these issues are similar in their own rights, they cannot be taken to naively with the same set of reactions. Dumm goes on to quote Obama to say:

    Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history,’ he was of course evoking the idea of American exceptionalism, a claim that we are possessed of distinctive values that, in times of crisis, come to the fore, and then inspire us to save our sorry asses.

    I agree with Dumm, and Obama that we approach our national problems with the same set of values that we have since the inception of our great country. However, American exceptionalism to me has only been relevant since about the time of the Cold War. These things that are old in my understanding would refer to the qualities and characteristics that make a strong American, not necessarily the overwhelming sense of American exceptionalism.

    On another note, at the end of this essay, Dumm touches on “childish” behavior, and its need to stop if we want to maintain this country and this planet. He also talks about how we are a country in debt and even though Obama may be doing some great things, we aren’t climbing as a country on the economic charts. I believe that Dumm is spot on when he quotes Obama to say we must stop our childish behavior, however being in the economic state we are in now, it is difficult to stop our childish ways cold turkey and have something to lean back on, whether this be renewable energy or other problems at hand. Environmental upgrades and solutions can only come with research and expenses. In an ideal world (or a country with a pre-Bush economy) we could stop all of our “childish” behavior, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Needless to say, Obama has his hands full in the next few years.

  4. avatar George King says:

    Dumm’s doubtful attitude throughout his reflection can best be epitomized by his last words; “Obama, I fear, has yet to grow up.” The last sentence sums up the author’s fear voiced throughout his piece. Dumm doubts the continuation of American exceptionalism; an ancient and founding ideal on which he argues the United States no longer stands. And where does Obama play into this crisis? The author asserts this issue must be addressed as a top priority to the president, or “at the heart of this presidency” when referring to Obama and his administration. American exceptionalism embodies more than a simple reputation. This age old ideal is a promise that America will always rise to the top, overcome new challenges, and remain at the center of the world arena. Dumm is very critical of Obama’s start to his presidency because he argues that the president has failed to change (the word at the center of his campaign) the Bush policies which destroyed our exceptionalism. This broken promise does so much harm and is so significant because the exceptionalism we valued so much also characterized our civil religion. With America’s civil religion tarnished, our not only does our world standing falter, but so does our genius, our innovation, and our resiliency. Dumm’s urgent attitude is due in part to his contention that “the earliest days of his or her administration largely is all that he or she will be able to do.” In other words, his pressing language is to warn Obama of the ticking clock on his political capital. Dumm’s harsh critiques of Obama’s policies are for no political reasons, but hopefully for reasons more universally appealing. He simply wants to restore those vital and missing parts to America’s portrait.

    To the second part of the reflection and the question that inevitably faces the reader; are Dumm’s critiques of Obama’s early proceedings fair? We understand why the author writes with such a critical hand, but is it warranted? One of the first points Dumm raises is Obama’s failure to investigate and possibly try officials from the Bush administration based on their blatant disregard of the Constitution. Dumm believes this exemplifies Obama’s poor decision making. I think it is the opposite. Obama’s conclusion to move forward from the previous administration’s transgressions exemplifies our president’s statement to “[set] aside childish things.” Although “childish” may be an understated word for what occurred, I believe Obama is honestly struggling to rescue America from the deep hole it has dug itself into. If the various allegations made against the Bush administration turn out to be true, the damage to our country’s morale would be unimaginable. To Dumm’s other critiques that I believe are easier to justify. The president’s promise to shut down Gitmo, for example, stains Obama’s diplomacy. Dumm warns the reader not to be fooled by Obama’s “much softer rhetoric… than his fundamentalist Christian predecessor,” because he has really failed in distinguishing his administration from George W. Bush’s. Beyond the policy critiques lies a bigger question sure to face Obama soon. What does this mean for his re-election in 2012? Obama must address these concerns immediately. Soon enough, he will be back on the campaign trail.

  5. avatar Amanda Klay says:

    One aspect of Dumm’s post that particularly stuck out to me was his commentary on our nation’s leaders, and the presidential process. Being a very liberal citizen, I can’t help but stand behind president Obama—if not for his hard work and commitment to changing America for the better, then for Obama’s intentions that serve as a breath of fresh air when juxtaposed against those of Bush. Compared to the Bush era, which I see as a dark mark on American history, Obama has, at the very least, his head and his heart in the right place. Regardless of his success at the end of four years, I think that slow and gradual progress is better than regression. I believe that whether or not Obama’s claims of change, progress, and hope for a brighter future could be perceived as “childish” by those hardened by realism and pragmatism, idealism is not a bad thing. I by no means see any person (the president included) capable of fixing all of the world’s ills, and furthermore understand that such a task is unattainable—at least in one lifetime. For this reason, I feel saddened by the common practice of pressuring “presidents [to] act immediately to fulfill their campaign pledges while they have a window of opportunity” and agree that a common perception is that “what a president now does in the earliest days of his or her administration largely is all that he or she will be able to do.” I am hesitant to limit the ability of all presidents across the board post-100 days.

    The bottom line as I see it, is that despite the multitude of problems plaguing the world, America’s greatest problem is the instant gratification its citizens have come to depend on. The reality of today’s world is that poverty, disease, disparities between classes… etc. are not going to be eradicated in a single lifetime. Dumm asserts, “given the depth of our problems, what would he [Obama] be able to do, how much patience would the American people have, and how much support would he be able to garner from the Congress?” While this may be a valid question, I think that the larger answer is that it doesn’t matter. Regardless of how much success he is able to glean from his presidency, Obama will not be able to cure the world of all its ills—and neither he, nor any other individual, should be expected to do so. What America and the world really needs is a generation of citizens willing to spend their lives working towards a goal that they will not see fulfilled in a single career. They must put the desire for instant gratification aside and adopt a goal of working towards a better future—even if future citizens will be the one to reap the benefits of our work today.

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