Echoing Reagan and JFK, Obama Cites American Exceptionalism

Historians in the News

It’s an appeal as old as America and its presidency: This is an extraordinary country populated by hard-working, big-dreaming, freedom-loving people graced by God when they’re not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.

And I’m the guy to lead it.

Declaring in his State of the Union address that the United States is “a light to the world,” President Obama joined the pantheon of presidents who, in turbulent times, wrapped their political agenda in the comfortable cloak of “American exceptionalism.”...

“If a president wants Americans to feel better about him, he has to make them feel better about America first,” said John Baick, professor of history at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.

Baick said Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat John F. Kennedy are the best modern-day examples of presidents who appealed to America’s strong national identity. Reagan spoke of America as a “city upon a hill,” a phrase borrowed from Puritan leader John Winthrop, one of the first Americans to express the new land’s exceptionalism. Kennedy challenged an anxious, Cold War-bound nation to land a man on the moon, a memory Obama evoked Tuesday night by speaking of “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”...

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