A few months into his first term, President Obama was asked by a reporter whether he agreed with his predecessors that America is “uniquely qualified to lead the world.” His answer spawned a cottage industry of conservative criticism.
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said. “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.”
It was a typical Obama rhetorical flourish, meant to acknowledge his opponent’s perspective—he was talking to a British journalist while on a trip to France—before speaking to his own. But the first half of the quote was roundly criticized from all sides, since if all countries are exceptional then none of them are.
By the time Obama ran for re-election in 2012, Republicans were regularly arguing that he did not believe in American exceptionalism. (Never mind that it wasn’t exactly true, as Obama repeatedly and loudly endorsed the concept in speeches.) Republican nominee Mitt Romney made it a centerpiece of his campaign against Obama, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio argued at a Republican debate earlier this year that Obama was trying “to make America more like the rest of the world.”
Now, in an unlikely twist, Hillary Clinton has turned that line of attack against her Republican rival, Donald Trump. In a speech before the American Legion in Cincinnati Wednesday, the Democratic nominee argued that the New York real estate mogul doesn’t think America is exceptional. “My opponent in this race has said very clearly that he thinks American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world,” Clinton said.
As evidence, Clinton pointed to a 2013 interview Trump had with Piers Morgan Tonight. At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin had just written an op-ed for the New York Times in which he criticized President Obama for saying that America is “exceptional.”
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
In the interview with Piers Morgan, Trump applauded Putin taking Obama to task for endorsing American exceptionalism, inadvertently echoing Obama’s own words.
“You think of the term as being fine, but all of sudden you say, what if you’re in Germany or Japan or any one of 100 different countries? You’re not going to like that term,” said Trump. “It’s very insulting and Putin really put it to him about that.”
Clinton wasn’t just content to criticize Trump. In her address, she also heartily endorsed the concept of American exceptionalism, going even further to call America “indispensable” and citing two Republican presidents in her speech to the American Legion.
“The United States is an exceptional nation,” she said. “I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country. … In fact, we are the indispensable nation.”
It was an argument aimed squarely at the veterans of an organization that lists “Americanism” as one of its central pillars. But it was also a way of turning one of the Republican lines against Obama back against the party’s own nominee.