At the end of a tumultuous, downbeat year, is the United States of America still a great nation?
You will hear a lot about who believes that America is an exceptional nation in the 2012 campaigns. It will be more consequential than the normal election-year hyperbole. The past year of dysfunction, doubt and diversion has prompted some to question the very efficacy and sustainability of the republic. Deep divisions in Congress produced Band-Aids on a debt cancer. Public sentiment shifted toward a belief that the political system is not just dysfunctional but corrupt. The global economy skirted around one crisis after another.
Republican presidential candidates routinely accuse President Obama of abandoning the ideal of American exceptionalism.
“This is a president who fundamentally believes that this next century is the post-American century — perhaps it is going to be the Chinese century,” GOP contender Mitt Romney said in a Sioux City, Iowa, debate this month. “He is wrong. It has to be the American century. America has to lead the free world.”
The Democrat Obama has relied heavily on history, including the actions and beliefs of previous Republican presidents, to summon Americans to past greatness. In early December, Obama spoke of his vision of the country’s future in Osawatamie, Kan., where Teddy Roosevelt had given his 1910 “new nationalism” speech. Then, a trust-busting and increasingly progressive Roosevelt was on his way to leaving the Republican Party to run as a Bull Moose candidate in 1912.
Obama chose the site purposefully to argue that the U.S. remained “the greatest nation on earth” because “we pull together; we pitch in; we do our part. We believe that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, and that our children will inherit a nation where those values live on.”
That competing imagery of individuality and commonality is a familiar summons for incumbent presidents seeking a second term. Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” theme was steeped in a fundamental ideal that such sunrise revivals could happen only to individual Americans. Bill Clinton made the bold claim that the U.S. alone was an “indispensable nation.” George W. Bush believed that America’s greatness demanded that it go it alone when necessary, with others to follow. It led to a “coalition of the willing” — by implication, those willing to follow the U.S. — into a still-controversial war with Iraq that is now ending after more than eight years.
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SOURCE: USA Today