CHICAGO – Last night, before a roaring crowd of supporters, President Obama gave his final speech as the leader of the free world. In addition to bluntly laying out what he sees as the most potent threats to our Democracy, Obama appropriately used this speech to recast one final time his vision of what makes America great.
This move by Obama is not unusual; in fact, many who follow him closely may have predicted that this would be a point of emphasis. Over the past eight years, President Obama has time and time again loosely, and sometimes directly, referenced ‘American Exceptionalism’ – beginning with the launch of his presidential campaign, memorably at the 50th anniversary of Selma, in his final State of the Union Address, again in his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention, and on countless other occasions.
‘American Exceptionalism’ has its roots in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The term has become increasingly taboo, particularly on the left, because it is often associated with the wars of ‘Manifest Destiny’, which led to the subjugation of foreign populations and also justified American imperialism. In fact, presidents of both parties have shied away from ‘American Exceptionalism’; according to the Presidential Document Archives of UC Santa Barbara, Obama is the first president since 1981 to even use the term in public.
Last night, President Obama evoked our uniquely American history to show how America is great. He referenced the many ways in which our ever-changing democracy has allowed individuals to bend the arc of history toward tolerance, freedom, and justice. Obama likened the GIs who gave their lives in World War II to the fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then again to those who gave their lives at Selma and Stonewall. All those who gave their lives to America believed in the spirit of our nation and were willing to fight for what is right. In his own words, “So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.”
For the 44th president, and the millions who share his vision, this exceptionalism is a way of life, not a constant, not guaranteed, and is constantly threatened, perhaps now more than ever. America can only be exceptional when we as citizens constantly work at the issues we care about. We must be engaged and diligent, and when we do not have a champion for progress, we should, “grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office [ourselves]”. Our capacity to make change in our democratic system is in itself extraordinary, but we are only truly exceptional when we seize that opportunity to make change happen.
Barack Obama’s message will shine brightly for decades in the generation of leaders that have come of age in his era of American Exceptionalism. I count myself among this generation. I could not imagine having been exposed to politics without President Obama’s presence on the national stage. The conviction with which he has spoken, the conception of history he has painted, and the genuine compassion he has embodied have forever implanted his message of hope in my psyche.
President Obama has said that he will be dedicating his post-presidency to building the next generation of democratic talent. His presidency has already inspired the next generation, and I think he knows it. But in case he or the world has doubts: we’re fired up; we’re ready to go; and yes, we can again.