WHO LOVES AMERICA MORE? American Exceptionalism and the Expansion of Executive Power
Just who do we think we are?
We are the United States of America, and it has long been held that this is an exceptional nation to be.
All countries have their own brand of chest-thumping nationalism, but none is so patently universal as America’s belief in its special character and singular role in the world. Derided by Joseph Stalin (and more recently by Vladimir Putin) as nothing more than the “heresy of American exceptionalism,” the duty to bring liberty and equality to the rest of the free world has been the American mission since the start. From John Winthrop’s vision of the “city on a hill,” to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s aspirations of the Great Society, to President George W. Bush’s constant invocations that “God continue to bless the United States of America,” the idea of American exceptionalism has long been a part of American rhetoric.
What was unexpected was the executive branch’s use of our exceptionalist ideology to increase its power within the federal government.
The result is an increased interventionist stance in foreign policy; the United States is engaging in more wars, granting more aid packages, and attempting to police more countries. In the name of exceptionalism and the American way, the executive branch has expanded its power and reach within the U.S. government.
This undue proliferation of executive power has remained unchecked by both Congress and the American people. Because to say no to such patriotic entreaties…
Well, just who do they think they are?
a definition of american exceptionalism
“For many observers,” James L. Guth remarks. “America’s historical experience is not only unique but better.”
Whenever citizens feel this conviction is under attack, they rise to the occasion. Such sentiments became especially clear during the 2012 Republican primaries when Republican presidential hopefuls accused President Barack Obama of doubting American superiority, leading the President to rebuff those claims by repeatedly sprinkle his entreaties with the phrase: “American exceptionalism.”
This term can have two meanings: “the first refers to the historical view Americans have had of themselves.” The United States was founded in unique, unprecedented circumstance and sought to embody the ideals of self-governance, liberty, and equality in a decidedly different fashion. These “innovative and progressive experiments” surprised the old world of European politics with their ultimate stability and longevity. Thus, the United States, as an exceptional state amongst states, feels an obligation to promote their unparalleled ideology abroad.
The second meaning refers to American exceptionalism in a broader, global sense and is in part contingent on the first. As one of the creators and dominant players in the international system, the United States has acquired the responsibilities “to transgress prevailing norms in order to provide peace and security and to promote American values — values assumed to be universal but in short supply in a world populated by ‘enemies of freedom,’ ‘tyrants,’ and ‘axes of evil.’”
Knowing these subtle variations in the definition of American exceptionalism is important to understanding why this ideology has been inextricable from the greater American ideology and why presidents have been able to extort this creed to shift the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches in their favor.
the executors and rhetoric of exceptionalism
The most ardent advocates of American exceptionalism have been those who are most able to use it in their favor; presidents, members of congress, and other foreign policy leaders have had a history of exploiting this ideology in order to appeal to the fundamental precepts of the American creed. Liberty, equality, opportunity—we believe that everyone should have access to these ideals. These exceptional values have been reiterated in different speeches and soundbites, although not always using the same terms. Understanding the manner in which this rhetoric has been employed by politicians is important to understanding how it can be used as a tool to shift power.
From Wilson to Kennedy to Reagan to Obama, quotations from presidential addresses consistently suggest “that the role of international liberator is deeply embedded within American self-identity as a superior society that should be emulated universally.” The theme is always the same: to save the world from totalitarianism, the United States must remain proactive. As early as the days of President Woodrow Wilson, the desire to preserve freedom across borders has been evident. In an Annapolis commencement address Wilson proclaimed: “I want you to take these great engines of force out onto the seas like adventurers enlisted for the elevation of the spirit of the human race. For that is the only distinction that America has.”
However, such rhetoric has not been used solely for symbolic occasions. President Harry Truman employed similar language to strengthen the positions of the Truman Doctrine during the Cold War, even going so far as to say that allowing the existence of governments so adamantly opposed to the American ideology threatens U.S. security. In an appeal to Congress to provide military and financial to Greece and Turkey to prevent the extension of the Soviet sphere of influence, Truman said: “This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed upon free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace, and hence the security of the United States.”
The proliferation of American exceptionalist rhetoric has continued into the modern era, with Presidents Bush and Obama using the ideology in two very different ways. Bush advocated an interventionist approach, claiming that: “America is Nation on a mission, and that mission comes from our basic beliefs….America acts in the cause with friends and allies, yet we understand our special calling: This great Republic will lead the cause of freedom.”
His successor took a decidedly different approach; although records show that Obama has used the phrase “American exceptionalism” more often than any of his predecessors, his version of exceptionalism takes a decidedly different approach: “I believe in American exceptionalism…[but not one based on] our military prowess or our economic dominance.” Rather, he insisted, “our exceptionalism must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values and our ideals. We are at our best when we are speaking in a voice that captures the aspirations of people across the globe.” At its core Obama’s words speak to the same American ideals that all other exceptionalist rhetoric appeals to, but he seems reluctant to commit to the interventionist approach that Bush, Truman, and Wilson seemed set on.
It is imperative to understand presidents’ different utilizations of the American exceptionalism rhetoric in order to understand the context in which this language is employed. It is used to sway the American people and shift power from to the executive branch.
presidency vs. congress
The primary mechanism through which the executive branch subverts power from the legislative branch is its war powers. And war powers are the primary mechanism through which we are able to assert American exceptionalism. It should come as no surprise then that presidents have exploited this to their advantage. Through powerful rhetoric and decisive action, the executive branch markedly expanded its powers, and the legislative branch has had little choice but to cede to its authority, lest they be declared anti-American.
Michael Dunne observed that “The more legislation Congress passes, the more it loses it oversight function, which is assumed by the Executive and regulatory agencies.” Constitutionally, only Congress has the power to declare war, but as it passes more legislation bucking its authority to the executive, presidents of past and present have done everything within their power to expand the powers delegated to them. The United States armed forces have been engaged almost continuously around the world since 1989, but as of yet Congress has not mounted a significant challenge to the president’s ability “to order an extended military engagement without a declaration of war.”
The Civil War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraqi war prove that the more Congress sacrifices for the sake of the exceptionalist cause, the more the executive branch claims for itself.
the civil war
The Civil War is often characterized as a war that no one had any desire to enter and a war that everyone wanted to end. But the bloodiest war in American history was purposely initiated by the actions of President Abraham Lincoln in a politically calculated tactic to preserve the union. Through the suspension of habeas corpus, the strategic blockade of southern ports, and the extension of voluntary military enlistments, among other maneuvers, Lincoln was able to force Congress’s hand; they were in this war, whether they liked it or not. Congress had no choice but to ratify this war in order to save face. Indeed, “American history is replete with instances of the president’s ability to make the first move and thereby frame Congress’s choice to either accept or reject the president’s actions.”
All of these actions were justified by Lincoln’s rousing speeches throughout the Civil War that beseeched Americans’ exceptionalist ideologies to endure the trials of the war in order to preserve the American Creed. In hallowed speeches such as the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address, it becomes clear that Lincoln knew that however morally justified his arguments were, he also had to appeal to the American Creed. Through rousing diatribes such as the infamous “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln was able to the American people that there was a reason that they had to wage this war—to preserve the American way.
The fact that Lincoln’s forceful actions also expanded presidential power was nothing but the price of doing business to preserve American exceptionalism.
the vietnam war
While Lincoln’s motives for engaging in warfare were more clearly linked to a legitimate moral concern, the same may not be said for the wars of his successors. The Vietnam War began and continued despite massive public disapproval and a declaration of war was never formally ratified. The war only began to fulfill one of the precepts of American exceptionalism: to protect and preserve democracy and liberty abroad.
There were no doubts about the nature of this war; in a 1969 address, President Richard Nixon said: “In response to the request of the Government of South Vietnam, President Eisenhower sent economic aid and military equipment to assist the people of South Vietnam in their efforts to prevent a Communist takeover.” However, the manner in which Nixon framed the war was interesting. Nixon asked, “How can we win America's peace?”
The fact that Nixon tied America’s peace to a resolution in the Vietnam War supports the exceptionalist rhetoric. This goes back to Truman’s claim that the imposition of totalitarian regime not only threatens the people of that county, but it also threatens the overall security of the United States. This oratory provides an outstanding cover for the underlying shift in power that was taking place. Congress had hardly any authority or information over the military operations taking place in Vietnam; most of this power was concentrated within the executive branch and the agencies within its authority. Congress’ inability to formally ratify the war essentially granted the White House a “hollow check” based on the commander-in-chief’s initiative. Congress’ reluctance to enforce its power of the purse and other oversight powers over the presidency have only strengthened the opposing branch; unchecked, the office of the president has been allowed to expand its authority by taking over responsibilities and powers that it is not constitutionally granted. In fear of opposing the grand tradition of American exceptionalism, Congress has been disinclined to come up against the might of the Presidency and the American public conscience.
The nation was focused on the question of whether or not the United States should continue to engage in the Vietnam War, which was fueled on by the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. By changing the conversation, the executive branch was able to distract the public from one of the primary effects of the war—a significant shift of power from Congress to the president.
the iraqi war
The Iraqi War is a cornerstone of the modern expansion of executive power. With the same tactics that were applied in the Vietnam War and other subsequent military interventions initiated by the U.S., President George W. Bush was able to expand executive power in the name of American exceptionalism. With the fear and intense nationalism that arose from the 9/11 attacks still wracking its conscience, the public was especially susceptible to calls to extend and preserve the sphere of liberty and democracy. Bush and his cohorts knew exactly how to appeal to that fervent, fearful patriotism. In his acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination at the 2004 Republican National Convention, shortly after the U.S. had gone to war against Iraq, Bush said: “By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world. By encouraging liberty at home, we will build a more hopeful America. Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America.”
Just like his predecessors, Bush knew how to appeal to the American fear of hostile regimes entirely opposed to the both our ideology and our exceptionalism. With the conversation focused on this clash of principles and the need to take action, Bush was able to extend presidential power through executive orders, signing statements, and a novel theory of authority known as the unitary executive. Such an interpretation of executive power could have only been permissible in times of crisis, such as that which followed the 9/11 attacks. With President Bush employing aggressively exceptionalist rhetoric to justify a distinctly exceptionalist approach to the new war on terrorism, Congress couldn’t put up much of a fight.
“Now we go forward, grateful for our freedom, faithful to our cause, and confident in the future of the greatest nation on Earth,” Bush declared. “May God bless you, and may God continue to bless our great country.”
Anyone who attempted to argue with that would immediately be hunted down for heresy.
Conclusion: the implications for congress and the impact on foreign policy
The implications of the use of American exceptionalism to expand presidential power and authority clearly involves a clear trade-off with the legislative branch’s power. In order for the office of the presidency to ascend the ranks within the federal government’s power structure, Congress must fall. The hindrance of Congress’ war powers, power of the purse, and oversight authority was only allowed because politicians were and are reluctant to battle the indomitable public will. American exceptionalism has been inextricable from the American Creed since its commencement, as evidenced by its proliferation throughout the rhetoric of prominent politicians and opinion leaders over the centuries in various metaphors, sermons, and declarations. Any attack on our nation’s exceptional nature is quickly derided and denounced as un-American. The result is that Congress’ power has greatly decreased and this has in part led to its inefficient, obstructionist nature in modern times.
An important factor to consider is to what extent this link between our American exceptionalism and the executive desire for increased power has affected international relations. As we enter a new millennium, the change in rhetoric between Bush and Obama has changed the United States’ approach to exceptionalism and foreign policy; as we regard current U.S. involvement in Syria, Afghanistan, and Egypt, it becomes clear that President Obama chooses to employ a distinct brand of exceptionalism that reveals an aversion to both zealous military commitment and the messianic belief in America’s special character and responsibilities. Given this take on our exceptionalist nature, it will be interesting to analyze the Obama administration’s impact on executive power, both present and future.
As American exceptionalism continues to redefine itself in the twenty-first century, a new question is constantly raised by both conservatives and liberals alike:
How much do you love America?
How you answer says a lot about your preferred brand of presidents and exceptionalism.