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Reagan and Obama

Is America a city on a hill or a country in decline?

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 2009 • By JEAN KAUFMAN
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Ronald Reagan believed in America.

One way he expressed this faith was through the image of "a shining city on a hill," a phrase Reagan uttered in one form or another in many of his speeches, including his 1989 Farewell Address in which he said, "I've spoken of the shining city all my political life." It was an expression with religious as well as historical origins, and referred to American exceptionalism.

In a 1974 speech Reagan expanded on America's special place among nations:

...I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage...

Somehow America has bred a kindliness into our people unmatched anywhere...We are not a sick society. A sick society could not produce the men that set foot on the moon...

We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, "The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind."

This sort of inspirational talk by Reagan really got the left's goat. His speeches expressed with deep conviction his love for this country, his belief in its special destiny, and his respect for its position as world leader for good rather than ill, all couched in language that drew unashamed and unembarrassed inspiration from religion. There is little doubt that he believed every word he said, then and during his two-term presidency.

Fast forward to Obama, another president who is considered by many to be an inspirational orator. But he inspires a very different group of people with a very different vision of America.

Obama may not be speaking in openly religious terms as Reagan did, but he nevertheless looks on America in a way that could be seen as religious: he sees it as a nation conceived in original sin, one that has gone on to commit offenses against the world for which it must now atone. And Obama views himself as the special instrument through which America can finally purify herself, join the world of other nations as an equal rather than a leader, and go forth and sin no more.

You might say that Reagan believed in American exceptionalism, whereas Obama believes in Obama's exceptionalism.

Once a person starts to look at Obama from that perspective, nearly everything he says and does seems to fit the pattern. For example, in a radio interview he gave in 2001, Obama was already explicit about America's original sin of slavery, as well as the fact that he believed that the sin (he called it a "fundamental flaw") was still ongoing and unresolved at the time he spoke:


"The original Constitution ... is an imperfect document, and I think it is a document that reflects some deep flaws in American culture, the Colonial culture nascent at that time. ... I think we can say that the Constitution reflected an enormous blind spot in this culture that carries on until this day, and that the Framers had that same blind spot. I don't think the two views are contradictory, to say that it was a remarkable political document that paved the way for where we are now, and to say that it also reflected the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day."

Obama considers himself a man of destiny. He seems to have believed that his election itself would have a transformative effect on America, separate from any particular programs or policies he would put into place once inaugurated. He promised change, yes; but the very first change would be the fact that he--Barack Obama, an African-American man--had been elected president. If slavery was (and in some sense still is) America's original sin, and if the Civil War wasn't enough to undo that fundamental flaw, then Obama's election would be a sign that America had finally taken a decisive step to purge itself of that sin.

A step, yes; but only the first in a lengthy process. The second step would be confession. And there were many other sins as well for which America must begin to atone. That is why Obama proceeded to go on a worldwide tour early in his presidency, apologizing to nation after nation for America's manifold sins of hubris and exceptionalism, militarism and imperialism, greed and excess. These were the many ways in which Obama and his fellow leftists have reframed American exceptionalism as American tyranny.

If Obama has anything to say about it, there will be further steps in America's journey of penance and redemption through the mechanism of his presidency. The redistribution of income is only fair and moral, since taxing the rich will punish them for their greed; and cap and trade will be the penalty for having used more than our fair share of resources. Foreign policy is a major mechanism by which this country will be made level with other countries--just one nation among the rest, stripped of much of its power and its weaponry.

Seen in this light, Michelle Obama's most well-known utterances during the campaign--about how Americans are "just downright mean," that Obama's nomination marked the first time in her adult life that she's been really proud of her country, and that her husband has come to help Americans heal their broken souls--fit perfectly into this picture. She--and her husband--see Americans in precisely the terms Reagan explicitly rejected: mean rather than kindly, denizens of a sick society in need of spiritual and moral healing, with the Obamas showing the way to redemption.

Jennifer Rubin notes that Mitt Romney, speaking at a recent Foreign Policy Initiative conference, indicated "that Obama shares the view of certain 'foreign-policy circles' that American is 'in decline' and that it is his job to manage America's decline."

But that doesn't quite capture the flavor of Obama's mission. Obama is not merely observing a downward trend and trying to shepherd this nation through the process. He believes such a downward direction is the morally proper one for America and Americans, the only way we can be forgiven our manifold sins and emerge purified through humility and sacrifice.

Obama also believes that he is the special instrument by which the nation can accomplish this transformation. That, more than any specific policy on any specific issue, is the goal of Obama's presidency: the shriving and humbling of America. That is what Obama means by "fundamental change."

Jean Kaufman is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.