Presidential Leadership: Uniting Behind Exceptionalism

Over the next four years, U.S. men and women will almost certainly be fighting and dying in combat operations abroad. Whoever becomes commander-in-chief in January 2017 will probably spend his or her term in office explaining to the American people, long tired of war, why still more sacrifice is necessary. On the economic front, a long-ignored fiscal crunch will have to be confronted. And if these two major challenges are not daunting enough, the next president is likely to face a country as polarized as it has been at any time in the last century. He or she will have to find a way to bridge the differences or be content representing barely half the population. That task may become even more difficult, given that the United States is becoming a nation of far more diverse ancestry, faith traditions, and complexion. The president who does not recognize and adapt to the new America could be seen as a player from yesteryear, or even an outlier in the unfolding national story. Presidential leadership is no simple matter.

Moreover, these dire scenarios appear unavoidable. Barack Obama was elected in 2008 as the most antiwar president since Woodrow Wilson, but he soon realized that a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from war zones would result in unacceptable advances for al-Qa’ida or other terrorist groups. The next president is bound also to collide with realities he or she would just as soon deny. The growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria guarantees a continued U.S. combat presence in the region, regardless of who wins the election. That includes Senator Bernie Sanders, the most pacifist of the current candidates. When asked in February 2016 how he would combat terrorism, Sanders said, “We have got to crush ISIS.” He suggested that Arab countries could lead that fight, but he would have a hard time today finding a credible U.S. military expert who will tell him ISIS can be destroyed without an extensive and costly U.S. effort over several years. The candidates may have the luxury to dance around that reality, but the next president will need to prepare the American people for continuing war.

That prospect will not be widely welcomed, at least by roughly half of the population. According to the Pew Research Center, partisanship in America has reached levels not seen since it was first measured under President Eisenhower. When surveyed, 81 percent of Democrats but only 14 percent of Republicans approved of President Obama’s performance. It was just the opposite under President George W. Bush, with 81 percent of Republicans approving, but only 23 percent of Democrats. In contrast, about half of all Democrats liked President Eisenhower, and half of all Republicans approved of President Kennedy. With the 2016 candidates routinely engaging in the demonization of their adversaries, it seems the electorate will become even further polarized.

Moreover, it will be an America unlike that any previous president has led. If current immigration and birth rate trends continue and the next president serves two full terms, 42 percent of the population will be nonwhite by the time he or she leaves office. Hispanics and Asians, having made up just 5 percent of the population in the 1960s, will together account for more than a quarter of the American people. The foreign-born share of the population by then is projected to be at an all-time high, higher than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the last great immigrant wave was peaking. This could mean drastically weakened social cohesion unless the nation’s chief executive uses the levers of office to promote an inclusive American national identity. Just as it is dishonest to pretend America will not be at war, no leader worthy of the country’s respect and support will be able to ignore its growing diversity.

The kind of leadership the country needs from its next president might be guided by the old, but hardly obsolete, notion of America as an exceptional nation. The concept of American exceptionalism has been twisted in recent years by being interpreted to mean the United States has a God-given status, in the words of Sarah Palin, as “the greatest earthly force for good the world has known,” but it can be made less controversial by stripping away the chauvinistic overtones and focusing more narrowly on its core element—that America is, and should be, a “force for good.” The idealistic vision of the country’s founders distinguished the United States among other nations as one especially committed to liberty and justice. Reclaiming the idea of American exceptionalism should be a cause that unites, not divides, the country, and it offers a way to think about the challenges that lie ahead for whoever leads the nation.

Even after his denunciation of the arguments that drew the United States into Iraq, President Obama cited American exceptionalism in justifying his 2011 decision to intervene in Libya early in that country’s civil war. “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries,” he said, “The United States of America is different [emphasis added].” Regardless of whether his administration managed the Libyan intervention well or honored the same principle in Syria, Obama was citing a principle that has guided U.S. foreign policy planning for many decades and proved persuasive to Republicans and Democrats alike. If the next president is to make a convincing case to the American people that the U.S. military must remain engaged overseas in the years ahead, this time to defeat barbarism, the argument will likely rest on an understanding of America’s exceptional nature and responsibilities.

The concept of American exceptionalism may be even more important inwardly, inasmuch as it informs the country’s understanding of its own special identity. In contrast to the Old World, where citizenship was determined by bloodlines, the United States was conceived as a nation of opportunity and new beginnings. “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger,” George Washington famously declared, “but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

In Europe, the people came with the territory, but in America, the territory came first, and those arriving from other lands were to become American citizens by swearing allegiance to the new nation and its individualist and liberty-centered ideology. “They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors,” John Quincy Adams said of the newcomers.

The first known characterization of America as an exceptional nation was by the French travel writer and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who on his first visit to the United States in 1831 was struck by its egalitarianism, as a country “where the inhabitants arrived but as yesterday upon the soil which they now occupy, and brought neither customs nor traditions with them there.” Class differences seemed not to matter, because the abundance of opportunity produced a degree of social mobility unmatched anywhere else in the world. “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional,” he wrote. Two centuries would nevertheless pass before the country successfully fulfilled that promise. Slavery, racial segregation, and the exclusion of most non-Europeans from coming to America all made a mockery of the idea that the United States was a country where anyone, regardless of color, nationality, or religion, could aspire to the same dreams as anyone else.

It was only with the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act at the height of the civil rights movement that all people who wanted to become Americans were to be treated more or less equally. In proposing the legislation, President Lyndon Johnson explained that it was proper to ask potential immigrants, “‘What can you do for our country?’ But we should not be asking, ‘In what country were you born?’” That law opened the United States to the entire world. A half-century later, with nine out of ten new Americans coming from somewhere outside Europe, the United States is finally becoming the multicultural country it has long claimed it could be.

The questions are how this new diversity is shaping the American experience and what it requires of the person leading the country. One issue facing a more diverse America is how to embrace cultural and religious pluralism without diluting the central tenets of what it means to be American, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Arthur Schlesinger, the liberal historian and former JFK adviser, sounded a pessimistic note in his 1998 book The Disuniting of America. Referring to the national motto, E Pluribus Unum, usually translated as “Out of many, one,” Schlesinger complained that celebrating diversity “belittles unum and glorifies pluribus.” It should nevertheless be possible to preserve the essential aspects of America’s unique identity—including libertarianism, egalitarianism, and individualism—while not defining it so narrowly that it effectively excludes Africans, Arabs, Asians, Hispanics, or anyone else. Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist famous for his analysis of how and when Americans bond with each other, proposed one approach to the dilemma in a 2006 essay. “My hunch,” he wrote, “is that at the end we shall see that the challenge is best met not by making ‘them’ more like ‘us,’ but rather by creating a new, more capacious sense of ‘we.’”

It is here that leadership becomes important. It is up to the president to remind Americans continually of the ideals that make their country special, just as it is the president’s responsibility to rally the country to face difficult missions, even when the people are weary. If Americans are angry and looking for scapegoats, the president can calm their fears and cite the American traditions of tolerance and civility. The president can project courage and confidence at a time when optimism and hope are lacking. When other nations descend into tribalism, the president can point out that this is not the American way and that the country has resisted authoritarian solutions for more than two hundred years because it was obligated by its founding fathers to do so. If the United States is able to incorporate new people of color and various faith traditions while staying true to its ideals, it will have demonstrated its resilience and provided an example to the rest of the world. None of this is easy. Barack Obama was elected in 2008 in good part on his promise to bring America together. Whether he was serious about that commitment or whether the opposition to him was too great to overcome can be debated, but there is no doubt he failed. He will leave the Oval Office with the country divided more deeply than it was when he arrived.

No new group has so tested the limits of American tolerance or challenged the prevailing culture as have Muslims. The 2010 U.S. Census indicated that the number of Muslims in the United States more than doubled in the preceding decade. Islam is now the fastest-growing religion in the country. Although Islam is one of the three “Abrahamic” faiths, it stands apart from the Judeo-Christian heritage that many conservatives regard as essential to the American identity, and many Americans regard it as a religion alien to American traditions. One recent poll found that nearly half of Americans surveyed believed Islam’s values are at odds with the American way of life. In the minds of many Americans, the religion is now associated with terrorism, thanks to al-Qa’ida and ISIS and other extremist groups. Not surprisingly, the American Muslim population has found itself singled out repeatedly, particularly during the 2016 campaign season. Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration was not the most extreme example; Ben Carson, during his presidential campaign, argued that Muslims who are devoted both to their faith and to American values must be “schizophrenic.”

With anti-Muslim rhetoric on the rise in America, President Obama in February 2016 paid a visit to a mosque in Baltimore, speaking both to his Muslim audience and to all those Americans who are suspicious of their Muslim neighbors. “If we’re serious about freedom of religion,” Obama said, “we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths.” He noted that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin explicitly included Islam among the religions guaranteed protection in America. Turning his attention to the Muslim Americans in the mosque, he encouraged them to embrace their American identity. “If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here,” he said, “let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here, right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”

However, the mosque visit was not without controversy. Although Obama had been in office for seven years, he had not previously set foot in a U.S. mosque, and some critics said he had been too slow to take that step. By choosing to visit in the heat of a presidential campaign, he set the stage for it to be seen as a political move. Senator Marco Rubio, competing with Trump and Carson at the time, questioned the extent to which American Muslims actually faced discrimination. “The bigger issue is radical Islam,” he said.

The celebration of America’s openness has for the most part not been a partisan exercise. President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington a week after the 9/11 attacks and declared, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is peace.” In a book published shortly before his death in 1994, Richard Nixon noted that the West and the Muslim world had often been in conflict but foresaw the next century as a time when “two great civilizations will enrich each other and the rest of the world.” In 1957, while visiting the same mosque George W. Bush would visit forty-four years later, President Eisenhower reassured his “Islamic friends . . . [that] under the American Constitution . . . and in American hearts . . . this place of worship is just as welcome . . . as any other.”

Such declarations were consistent with American values espoused since the founding of the country and until recently not considered controversial. Addressing the Republican National Convention in 1992, Ronald Reagan reminded the delegates that “we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans that is not enough. We must be equal in the eyes of each other . . . . In America, our origins matter less than our destinations, and that is what democracy is all about.”

With each passing year, that simple appeal becomes more urgent and making it forcefully requires more courage, but that is what leadership is all about.


Tom Gjelten is a correspondent for NPR News  and the author of A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story .

OG Image: