The Debate Over Whether Obama Loves America

At a press conference in 2009, Barack Obama said, “America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world toward peace and prosperity.” He also proclaimed that America has core values that make it exceptional.

Based on those comments, right-wing pundits and politicians reached a conclusion:Barack Obama does not believe in “American exceptionalism.” And since they say this all the time, reporters feel obligated to cover it as if it were an actual, serious argument.

Hence Susan Page‘s front-page article in USA Today (12/21/10):

Over White House objections, they’re accusing him of not embracing the concept of American exceptionalism, saying he is pursuing an agenda on healthcare, the economy and foreign affairs that is at odds with fundamentals that distinguish the United States.

Obama “has clarified and personified secular socialization and a European view,” says former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who is weighing a presidential bid in 2012. Obama, he says, made “disastrous” comments on the subject during his first trip overseas as president in an exchange that has become a cause cĂ©lebre among conservatives.

Page notes that this all comes down to one answer to one question at a 2009 press conference:

At a news conference in Strasbourg, France, in April 2009, a British reporter had asked the new president whether he subscribed to the idea that the United States is uniquely qualified to lead the world. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Obama had replied.

That comment–which White House officials say critics have twisted and pulled out of context–led Gingrich, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and other prominent Republicans to question whether Obama believes that the USA has, by virtue of its heritage, a distinct and extraordinary role in world affairs.

He said, she said: Obama’s defenders say they’re misinterpreting the quote, Palin and company say they’re not. If there was any “context” to this quote, USA Today didn’t seem inclined to include it here–only the preface about the British and the Greeks.

But the paper did publish a sidebar article that included Obama’s entire answer to this question about exceptionalism.

Now in a sane media world, we would acknowledge that Obama said this:

The United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

With that out of the way,we’d spend our time trying to figure out precisely how and why Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin willfully misinterpret his words. But we don’t have that media system. We have the one where the sputterings from Sarah Palin are taken seriously as one side in a “debate.”

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.