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Posted at 11:40 PM ET, 01/25/2011

SOTU sells big government with American exceptionalism

By Marc Thiessen

The rise of the Tea Party movement has seen a renewed interest in the idea of American exceptionalism -- the belief that ours is a nation set apart, a "shining city on a hill," as Ronald Reagan always called her. Tuesday, President Obama embraced the language of American exceptionalism -- and harnessed it for a sustained argument in defense of activist government. The question before the Congress, Obama said, is "whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world." Good start. He continued with the theme:

...for all the hits we've taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world's best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.

What's more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -- the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That is why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here. It's why our students don't just memorize equations, but answer questions like "What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?"

And Obama continued:

...What we can do -- what America does better than anyone -- is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It's how we make a living.

All this sounded solidly Reaganesque. But then Obama showed his hand, launching into a sustained defense of government spending (under the guise of "investment"). In the face of Republican calls to scale back his fiscal excesses of the past two years, Obama proposed a raft of new spending on areas such as technology, renewable energy, education, and infrastructure.

Our infrastructure used to be the best -- but our lead has slipped....We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system....Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I'm proposing that we redouble these efforts.

All of a sudden it became clear: Obama was harnessing American exceptionalism to sell a second stimulus.

Even when he told the inspiring story of Robert and Gary Allen -- the Michigan roofers who volunteered to help repair the Pentagon and reinvented their struggling business as a manufacturer of solar panels -- he slipped in that they did it "with the help of a government loan," adding, "That's what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves." Yes, for over 200 years we have reinvented ourselves with government loans.

Obama embraced the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility: "The final step -- a critical step -- in winning the future is to make sure we aren't buried under a mountain of debt. We are living with a legacy of deficit spending that began almost a decade ago." (Note the obligatory shot at George W. Bush.) "But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable."

That was encouraging -- until we heard his solution: "[T]onight, I am proposing that, starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years." Yes, while Republicans want to scale back spending to 2008 (read: pre-Obama) levels, he wants to freeze in place all the new spending Obama and congressional Democrats enacted over the past two years. The problem, as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) pointed out in his Republican response, is that, "Since taking office, President Obama has signed into law spending increases of nearly 25 percent for domestic government agencies -- an 84 percent increase when you include the failed stimulus. All of this new government spending was sold as 'investment.'"

Obama promised that "In the coming year, we will also work to rebuild people's faith in the institution of government" by making it "more competent and efficient." And he concluded where he began -- with a celebration of America the Exceptional:

We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools; changing the way we use energy; reducing our deficit -- none of this is easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The cost. The details. The letter of every law.... And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything's possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.

That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working class kid from Scranton can stand behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.

An elegant touch, that tribute to Speaker Boehner. But what made his speech truly exceptional was his attempt to harness the language of American exceptionalism in defense of big government.

By Marc Thiessen  | January 25, 2011; 11:40 PM ET
Categories:  Thiessen  | Tags:  Marc Thiessen  
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Next: Obama's SOTU, Ryan's response, Bachmann's banality


Wow, you really didn't get it. I guess you weren't really listening, just trying to hear what you wanted to. I'm not surprised.

Posted by: thomasmc1957 | January 26, 2011 12:17 AM | Report abuse

Why would anyone want to sound Reaganesque? Ronald Reagan was one of the worst presidents in US history. This is FACT not OPINION. When will people like Theissen get it?

Posted by: nyrunner101 | January 26, 2011 12:31 AM | Report abuse

The main problem with both the democrats AND republicans is neither will accept the proposition that the ruling elite has fialed miserably. Both insist working from the top down like either approach wil do any good. Over time this will become more and more obvious as whomever is in power from whatever party honestly believes that HE is doing things that are making the situation better not realizing that it is only gettin better for his lunch buddies and nobody else.

Posted by: jhadv | January 26, 2011 1:03 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, Marc, but aren't you still in favor of big, activist government illegally torturing people?

At least Obama has gotten that part right.

Posted by: DaveMichael | January 26, 2011 1:03 AM | Report abuse


Please explain who exactly is supposed to invest in infrastructure, if not the government. I just don't get what your issue is. If you want to call it stimulus fine. But, we need roads, we need infrastructure, we need an economy that will be competitive in the future. You seem not to know that many technological innovations come as a result of government money. What is your problem with investing in our future?

Posted by: comeonpeople | January 26, 2011 1:45 AM | Report abuse

If there had been a President Obama in the White House during the years 1983-1989 (or President Carter), there would still be a Cold War going on with the Soviet Union with ten times as many nuclear weapons in existance, greater inflation, higher unemployment and even less security...

Sorry, Reagan got it right. Big Government is the problem, not the solution.

Posted by: honorswar26 | January 26, 2011 5:31 AM | Report abuse

Why do I waste my time reading this I know no matter what there's going to be negativity.

Posted by: rlj611 | January 26, 2011 6:24 AM | Report abuse

You can't torture large numbers of people without a fairly extensive infrastructure, Thiessen.

Posted by: anaximander471 | January 26, 2011 8:24 AM | Report abuse

You are a torture advocate and that eliminates you from ANY reasonable discussion. You and your ilk should be in front of a military firing squad, not writing for a neocon newspaper.

Posted by: aartmann112004 | January 26, 2011 8:28 AM | Report abuse

Listening to Republicans callers into Washington Journal this morning, there must be something in the DNA of Republicans that there only comfort zone seems to be to revel in negativity and fear. Thiessen is a perfect example of that as well.

Posted by: bpotter110 | January 26, 2011 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Hey Marc,

The Judge (you can look up the meaning of the word later it has to do with a credible legal system) gave Ghaliani life in prison. Now I know you are disappointed you can't waterboard him again but maybe its time to apologize to the prosecutors who cleaned up the mess YOU created.

BTW, you will only be remembered for advocating government sanctioned torture.

Have a nice day.

Posted by: mmcd1 | January 26, 2011 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Spending at the behest of political expediency is not investment, it is crony capitalism. Innovation does not occur because a politician gets behind an idea or concept. Innovation occurs when ideas and concepts are given greater freedom to develop.

Posted by: Fitz157 | January 26, 2011 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Nice work, Pig-eyes.

You wouldn't have the nuts to try to explain how the stimulus "failed" so you quote Paul Ryan to say it for you, as if that takes care of the problem.

When your column starts from a premise that is a lie, the rest can only go downhill from there.

Posted by: st50taw | January 26, 2011 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Please tell us how much you cut government while you were in the Bush White House, Mr. Thiessen. Please tell us how the railroads were built without any government help, Mr. Thiessen. Please tell us how Lewis and Clark explored the West without any government help, Mr. Thiessen. Better yet, why don't you, Mr. Hiatt, explain why you employed this know-nothing hack.

Posted by: StevenEMedlock | January 26, 2011 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Re: The 5:31 a.m. comment by "honorswar26":

"If there had been a President Obama in the White House during the years 1983-1989 (or President Carter), there would still be a Cold War going on with the Soviet Union...Big Government is the problem, not the solution."

How do you think Reagan turned the corner on the Cold War? Huge government spending on defense. Massive spending, in fact. Big government was PRECISELY the solution Reagan employed.

Posted by: lj51 | January 26, 2011 9:49 AM | Report abuse


You, like most of your Rebublican fellows, see the world through a prism of ideology that is completely divorced from reality.

You refuse to take responsibility for the economic disaster caused under George Bush's watch, while you idologues applauded every move.

Two unfunded wars, lack of regulation, and a completely unnecessary tax cut caused this debacle. Now you blame Obama because we are not recovering fast enough.

But you keep harping on the very same themes that got us into this mess: supply side economic theories that have no basis in fact, "small government", lower taxes, less regulation.

It is all complete hypocrisy, devoid of any basis in reality, nothing but the same stuff that failed so miserably the last time around.

Posted by: mandelm2001 | January 26, 2011 10:00 AM | Report abuse

It is all complete hypocrisy, devoid of any basis in reality, nothing but the same stuff that failed so miserably the last time around.

Posted by: mandelm2001


That's is a good description of Obama's speech and 80% of the comments here as well. As Eugene Robinson put it the speech was a pretty package. Obama tried to regain the center with trowing money at every problem.

Posted by: bbface21 | January 26, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Thiessen, if you're going to snipe at President Obama for not subscribing to the peculiar version of American exceptionalism that you and the GOP endorse at every opportunity, then you REALLY need to brush up on your history.

For instance, you obviously are proud of this cheap shot: "Yes, for over 200 years we have reinvented ourselves with government loans." Too bad it happens to be 100% factual: Beginning with the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, and continuing through the opening of Oklahoma more than a century later, Uncle Sam let settlers occupy huge tracts of land all over the country for pennies so long as they developed it. Indeed, that's how most of this country got settled.

And speaking of government loans and subsidies, I didn't hear Paul Ryan say a word in his response to the State of the Union address about phasing those out. Rather a curious omission coming from someone who claims his party is willing to make hard budgetary choices, isn't it? So much for self-sufficiency, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, etc.

What shameless hypocrisy.

Posted by: DCSteve1 | January 26, 2011 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Big Government

Wants to control female reproductive rights

Created TSA

Spies on its own citizens

Impose Americanism on Third World nations, using our military to force our will on those small, weak nations

Created the never ending War on Drugs, which has failed, overloaded our prisons, and is destroying Mexico, fueling illegal immigration across our borders

Allowed Globalism to become an incentive for corporations to to ship American jobs overseas

These bulk of these things seem to be Republican initiatives, aren't they?

Posted by: samsara15 | January 26, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

The phrase "City upon a Hill" may have been used by Reagan and others more recently, but, originally a Biblical parable, it was most famously used by Puritan leader John Winthrop to describe his hopes for the colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony back in 1630.

I'm always a little stunned when public figures (Sarah Palin: "As Reagan so beautifully put it...") wrongly attribute it to Reagan, because I very clearly remember learning about Winthrop and his galvanizing use of this phrase during one of the first weeks of 11th grade American History.

Posted by: music1an | January 26, 2011 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Huh? This is a top adviser in the Bush administration talking? Is he familiar with the term "credibility"?

Increase of non-defense governmental spending in 8 years of Bush: 23%

Increase of defense governmental spending in 8 years of Bush: 61%

And don't bring in 9/11 as an excuse because the Obama administration is still cleaning up the messes that the previous one started with the spending there, so if it excuses Bush it by extension excuses Obama.

Here's a Washington Times article from the end of the Bush era about its historic expansion of government:
Here's how the article begins: "George W. Bush rode into Washington almost eight years ago astride the horse of smaller government. He will leave it this winter having overseen the biggest federal budget expansion since Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven decades ago."

(But I guess the Washington Times is a "lamestream" pinko rag. I'm sure Thiessen has some excuse for it.)

And don't get me started on Reagan, who never once in 8 years presented a balanced budget.

Posted by: justin_timberwolf | January 26, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse

All I heard was blah blah blah from an illegal alien who doesn't have an American birth certificate and is unfit to hold office.

Posted by: carlbatey | January 26, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Marc, if you had written that it's time to get the government out of the illegal torture business and let private enterprise drive torture innovations, I'm be more inclined to believe you.

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | January 26, 2011 12:49 PM | Report abuse

"Obama promised that "In the coming year, we will also work to rebuild people's faith in the institution of government" by making it "more competent and efficient."

In contrast, Theissen and his Republican comrades not only chant the "government is the problem" mantra, but when they get power they make sure that government is the problem. They delight in sabotaging the functions of government, ignoring or outright refusing to enforce regulations, appointing as the heads of federal agencies people who want them abolished, and generally trying their best to make government is the problem come true. They don't try to fix problems, instead they create new ones. The Republican party is not fit to govern any longer.

Posted by: Chagasman | January 26, 2011 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Obama and the Dems just dont get more is time to pay as we go for all items.

Posted by: short1 | January 26, 2011 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I was hoping that he would announce the end of the Metro random bag checks. Since they were instituted solely due to a federal grant and not because there was any acutal threat, getting rid of them would save money and help restore our faith that the Bill of Rights is used for more than toilet paper in the halls of government.

Posted by: morattico | January 26, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Do they really pay you?

Posted by: jckdoors | January 26, 2011 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Thiessen the Sissy crying again.

Are you having Bohener moment.

Posted by: pdq5 | January 26, 2011 2:58 PM | Report abuse

All I heard was blah blah blah from an illegal alien who doesn't have an American birth certificate and is unfit to hold office.

Posted by: carlbatey | January 26, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse
carlbatey, doesn't your head hurt?

Posted by: OHREALLYNOW | January 26, 2011 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I feel that the President "set the tone" for this years business. Like percussion and tympani does in a large orchestra. The core rhythm, beat that the actual "musical" instruments can rely on to create music, not the usual tome`.
FDR's T. V. A. (Tennessee Valley Authority) alone was and still is a beneficial, lasting achievement of "Big" government stimulus. So too the Hoover Dam. The U S of A's transportation infrastructure is somewhat long in the tooth nowadays.

A lot of private "investment" will continue to go abroad for the near future. Some more "Big" government stimulus seems in order. If the congressional "orchestra" gets the new "beat".

Posted by: deepthroat21 | January 26, 2011 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Government investment is code for: misallocation of Capital towards pet projects in order to benefit the few at the cost of the many.

Posted by: BradG | January 26, 2011 3:54 PM | Report abuse

"Torture" Thiessen is on the loose again, selling the Republican lie that Reagan was a "great" President. I suppose he was, in Republican terms, after all by the time Reagan left office there were lots of people on street corners holding cardboard signs but we weren't all eating out of soup kitchens or taking part in mass suicides? Better than Bush! Or Hoover. "Torture" needs to catch up on the news that Reagan was actually suffering from dementia for much of his period in office, which would explain why he had to be told what to do most of the day.

Posted by: gposner | January 26, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Thiessen writes, "But then Obama showed his hand, launching into a sustained defense of government spending (under the guise of "investment"). ...Obama proposed a raft of new spending on areas such as technology, renewable energy, education, and infrastructure.”
These lines indicate that Thiessen is either ignorant of the difference between investment and spending or that he is purposefully trying to deceit and misinform the American people. Ignorance or deception; how strange coming from a rabid right winger!

Posted by: gardelito | January 26, 2011 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Thiessen, look around you for goodness sake!
Unless you insist on becoming a full blow tea bagger and crowing 'exceptional' just because you utter the word then it should be obvious that our colleges, courts, schools, roads, bridges, water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, dams, bridges, airports, libraries, utilities, national parks, railroads, ports, civil service, etc. are of course what makes us exceptional to begin with... our willingness as people who share a commonweal to build, maintain, sustain, innovate and empower ourselves and our country ... it is so basic.

Honestly, you must have watched to many cowboy movies as a child.

Posted by: Gracefulboomer | January 26, 2011 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Marc Thiessen wrote (end of article):
"An elegant touch, that tribute to Speaker Boehner. But what made his speech truly exceptional was his attempt to harness the language of American exceptionalism in defense of big government."

1) Minor point first: Thiessen quotes Obama's tributes to both Biden and Boehner and reference to himself. But the only "elegant thing" Thiessen can see is the tribute to Boehner. Apparently only Boehner's is the "good" story . . . . Gawd, what a partisan twit Thiessen is.

2) More important point: News flash, Marc! It's possible to understand and even celebrate American exceptionalism without seeing the world through your skewed perspective or having to accept your sour and hyper-partisan definition of it. And since you were a Reagan acolyte, it's hardly a surprise that you want things to sound "Reaganesque." For many Americans, however, that's not an exclusively good thing--it depends on which of Reagan's pronouncements you refer to. But YOUR cries of American exceptionalism are like the Pharisee praying (or would that be braying) loudly in the temple about his virtue . . . And the kind of American exceptionalism like yours that chants "We're No. 1!" without critical self-assessment is sophomore cheerleading. You're really swinging your pom-poms today.

Posted by: post_reader_in_wv | January 26, 2011 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Facts never get in the way, do they? Reagan left with a federal government 30% larger than when he took office. The federal government has shrunk under Obama administration. There are actually less federal employees and some redundant agencies have already been eliminated. This BS is not about big government at all. It's all about giving even more of our government control to the elite few that control most of our economy already.
The Pentagon budget takes 40% of our overall federal budget. The last Cheney/Bush administration more than doubled military spending completely off budget. Much of the raise in the federal budget under Obama was because the two off budget wars and the Medicare prescription drug benefit which was also off budget were finally included in the federal budget. But, let's not let facts get in your way.

Posted by: RMForbes | January 26, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

All true Americans are exceptional and we don't need big socialist government to prove it.Too bad the illegal alien occupying our White House doesn't understand, Let's start a fund to send him back to his Kenyan home.

Posted by: carlbatey | January 27, 2011 12:32 AM | Report abuse

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