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In a piece for the Ideas section of Time.com, former Newsweek managing editor and current Random House executive editor Jon Meacham took a stab at explaining American exceptionalism -- a phrase conservatives have repeatedly invoked to attack President Obama. "Are Americans really exceptional?" Meacham asked. He wrote:
In rough political terms, the Republican presidential field argues that America is a place set apart, a nation with a divinely ordained mission to lead the world. A corollary to the case as it is being put in the 2012 cycle is that President Obama does not believe this. George H.W. Bush leveled the same charge against Michael Dukakis in 1988, claiming that Dukakis thought of the United States as just another country on the roll of the United Nations. The argument is well-suited to reassure voters who are pessimistic about the life of the nation and about the place of America in the world.
We are going to be hearing more about this notion of exceptionalism, possibly far beyond Iowa and New Hampshire and into the general election. So let's be clear about the history -- and the uses and abuses -- of the vision of America as an instrument of God's will on earth.
This sense that we are the new Israel, a chosen people, is among the most ancient and most potent of American ideas. It has informed our finest hours and some of our worst. It has given us the confidence to project our power in defense of the weak and of the innocent and the persecuted. It has sometimes fed a sense of hubris and moral self-certainty.
Meacham goes on to claim that "[w]e are exceptional not because of who we are but because of what we do and how we put the ideals of human dignity, individual freedom, and liberty under law into action. Those ideas are rooted in part in our religious traditions; it is ahistorical to deny that faith played a critical role in the development of American freedom."
Since Obama's 2009 remarks addressing whether he subscribed to the "school of 'American exceptionalism' that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world," conservatives have mischaracterized his comments to push the argument that he has "a lack of faith in American exceptionalism." While Meacham noted that this is indeed a Republican construct we will "be hearing more about" during the 2012 election, he made no effort to explore what Obama himself has said about America's role in the world -- only writing that the rhetoric of exceptionalism "reassures" those "voters who are pessimistic about the life of the nation and about the place of America in the world."