The Magazine

Exceptionally Inexperienced

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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It has long been The Scrapbook’s contention that one of the great weaknesses of Barack Obama in the White House is both simple and obvious to discern: inexperience. People can argue until they’re blue in the face about his Kenyan father, or his wicked Chicago friends, or whether he’s a socialist or a Marxist or unholy hybrid of both. But the fact is that, in 2008, the American people elected a freshman senator as president of the United States—and on occasion, it shows. 

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To be sure, presidents have risen above their near-virginal status in politics—Abraham Lincoln is the most famous example, but there are others—and “experience” can also be another name for careerism. But as the current debacle in Syria suggests, President Obama has a tendency to speak before he thinks things through, and his foreign policy has a disturbingly ad hoc quality to it. 

On the other hand, it’s not all bad news. In the president’s otherwise embarrassing address to the nation last week—“Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks”—there was a revealing passage toward the end. “What kind of world will we live in,” he asked, “if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law .  .  . and we choose to look the other way?” 

George W. Bush could not have said it better. But Obama continued: “I believe we should act,” he declared. And why? “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” 

This invocation of American exceptionalism was not just balm to The Scrapbook’s ears, but an interesting departure from the last time President Obama discussed the subject. Shortly after taking office, in 2009, he was asked at a G-20 summit in London if he believed in American exceptionalism. His response was deeply revealing: “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he replied, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” It wasn’t necessary for the president to add that Solomon Islanders undoubtedly believe in Solomon Island exceptionalism as well: His tone—sarcastic, dismissive—made it clear that he regarded “American exceptionalism” as a silly slogan which had earned Obama’s bemused contempt. 

Well, that was then. 

The Scrapbook, like most Americans, is unhappy with the way the Syrian crisis is playing out: A measure of wisdom, a kind of humility, certainly a deeper knowledge of modern history and broader experience of the world, might have prevented President Obama from painting himself into the box where he now finds himself. But at least we can say that he seems to comprehend what is meant by American exceptionalism, and why Vladimir Putin (in his notorious New York Times op-ed piece) is so obviously threatened by it. 

That’s progress, we hope—even if on-the-job training in the White House is harrowing for the rest of us.

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