As election night delivered a fragmented society, the second Obama Administration passed the baton on to the highly ideological Trump. While one already knows what to expect from Trump’s identity politics, understanding Obama’s approach to American exceptionalism is a less straightforward task, particularly because everyone agrees that the former president was not exceptional. In fact both detractors and devotees of the 44th president of United States believe that he was a post-ideological leader who did not characterised his policies with a personal and nationalist style.
On the one hand his enemies described him as a president who pushed American power towards decline because he was “not committed to America’s exceptional qualities”. They stated he was “apologist”, “abdicating”, “anti-American” and “non-nationalist”. On the other hand, those that admired him did so because of his preference for “caution over confrontation” and “consensus-building over ideology”. To sum up, both groups of observers agree that Obama’s ideological stance was moderate. To the first group this moderation meant weakness, to the second group it meant charm. Here I want to challenge both superficial views. For better or for worse Obama was a very nationalist president who coherently tied his identity discourse to some of the most traditional strands of American exceptionalism. He put forward a narrative which represented a quasi-autobiographical re-interpretation of American values. Firstly, he was called to lead the country at a time of economic turmoil and social anger.
As the financial crisis hit white-Americans and the demographic revolution triggered a trend towards a society of “minority-majority” – with Asian-American figuring as the fastest growing group – Obama had to play the role of social fireman. The politics of Obama’s exceptionalism was mainly committed to recover those foundational principles of American society and Constitution enclosed in the slogan e pluribus unum – out of many one. He stated extensively in his public speeches how inclusiveness lied at the foundation of his society and often reasserted that racial discrimination was unconceivable and “not American”. Despite being black, Obama went beyond the politics of Jesse Jackson and his negritude remained entangled with his multi-ethnic biological experience. Indeed Obama’s Afro-American background intersected with the fact he was born on a Pacific island become American thanks to the very last phase of continentalism. Obama’s mother had Irish origins and his father was from Kenya and both met at a Russian class. The former president lived in the Philippines – again on the route of American expansionism – and his white grandparents took part to WWII. He embedded the foundational paradigm of Americanness – many immigrants from Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe under the same flag – but for the 21st century. In this sense Obama’s speech from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2015 was one of the most meaningful, a statement of his attachment to American exceptionally diverse society.
Secondly, this domestic discourse found continuity in foreign policy with a more geopolitical inclination. The intersection between Obama’s worldview, the numerical increase of Latino and Asian-American, the economic decline of Europe and the rise of China in Asia-Pacific pushed the former president of United States to shift the focus of American exceptionalism away from Atlanticism. He returned once again to American history and to the centrality that the Pacific frontier had as a bulwark for commercial openness and wealth and as a space for the encounter of different civilizations for 19th and 20th century United States. Obama’s geo-ideological view was explicitly presented in his speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011 – and often reaffirmed in Japan and India – where he explained how the Pacific basin contained the history of international migration to and from America, the blood of American soldiers for important battles and the gift of prosperity all in once, and that this granted America with the right of being an Asia-Pacific nation. Given the importance of the Asia-Pacific in economic terms and given the current economic recession, Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that the Pacific frontier would have swept away the “maladies” of his country resurrected in Obama’s discourse. This served the purpose to construct his nationalist narrative and to strengthen US power in a region which geopolitically speaking has become the most important in the world. If observers were concerned with Obama’s “weak” policy in the Middle East, only few noticed that he was “fixated” on the Asia-Pacific because it represents the “future”.
Obama’s nationalism recovered the old traditions of multiculturalism and Pacific identity and used it to carry America through a tremendous economic crisis and the geostrategic shift towards Asia.