Heritage Foundation president: Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Though America may be in a rut, Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner has an optimistic Fourth of July message for you: We’re still exceptional.

“America is exceptional because as immigrants from 194 countries over the years, we have shown it is the only place where you can come and start off with a clean slate,” he told The Daily Caller in an interview about his new book, “The American Spirit: Celebrating the Virtues and Values that Make us Great,” co-authored with Brian Tracy.

“In effect, you can define your own future. You can be whatever is possible as long as you are willing to work hard for it and make it happen on your own behalf. You are not automatically cast into a class system or a certain level of society which you can’t rise out of. You can really make a difference.”

“In short, America is not just a place: It is an idea.”

Asked whether he thinks President Obama believes in American exceptionalism the way he defines it, Feulner said “no.”

“President Obama has already said he does not believe in American exceptionalism the way we believe in it,” he said.

Feulner rejects the notion of an America in decline, saying that the nation’s challenges “aren’t greater than the country faced when we were in world wars, or when we were in the midst of the Great Depression.”

“What has to happen is we all have to rise above our individual concerns, work together to get out of it and get over this gloom-and-doom mentality,” he said.

Among the steps the think tank chief thinks America needs to take are “realiz[ing] the limits that should be placed on government,” “reaffirm[ing] the basic truth that government does not create jobs or grow an economy,” and “encourag[ing] and incentiviz[ing] individuals, through low taxes and less governmental regulations, individuals with their ability to be creative and be all that they can be.”

Read TheDC’s full interview with Feulner about his new book and much more:

Why did you and Brian Tracy decide to write the book?

We decided to write “The American Spirit” because there is too much gloom and doom around these days. The best days of America can still lie ahead of her if we get over the notion that somehow things are bad and getting worse. Instead, we should be optimistic and look forward to how to make things really better for everyone.

What defines the American character?

The American character is defined by a whole set of virtues that have been talked about by writers going back to Bill Bennett’s definitive work, The Book of Virtues,” but they basically involve a commitment to freedom, a belief in a divine order of things, a sense of responsibility and optimism, and a belief in honesty and integrity toward the other person. Tolerance and open-mindedness are important, as is a pragmatic attitude combined with generosity of spirit.

We believe in the individual and the individual’s right to be free to choose. And that means that the individual will embrace the system that we call, in shorthand, “capitalism.” All of this comes together in terms of what we call “The American Spirit.”

What makes America so exceptional?

America is exceptional because as immigrants from 194 countries over the years, we have shown it is the only place where you can come and start off with a clean slate. In effect, you can define your own future. You can be whatever is possible as long as you are willing to work hard for it and make it happen on your own behalf. You are not automatically cast into a class system or a certain level of society which you can’t rise out of. You can really make a difference.  In short, America is not just a place: It is an idea.

Is America really all that different from other Western-oriented nations?

Yes, America really is different from other Western-oriented nations. We believe in these basic principles and if we weren’t different, then people wouldn’t keep coming here because they view America as the “last best hope.”


What were the most interesting statistics you uncovered about America while researching this book?

Some of the most interesting statistics that we uncovered when we worked on this book were not only the number of people who came here from elsewhere, but the number of people who said, “Hey, full immersion in what the United States is and should be is very important to me and to my children.” It’s what they want to be and where they want to go in the future.

For example, when we hear that more than 80 percent of Hispanic parents want their children to be fluent in English because they know that’s the way for their children to get ahead, that’s what really matters in terms of getting the message of the unique American experiment out there.

What do you make of the idea that America is in decline?

We reject the notion that America is in decline. Yes, today there are challenges that face all of us, challenges that we have to deal with, but they certainly aren’t greater than the country faced when we were in world wars, or when we were in the midst of the Great Depression. What has to happen is we all have to rise above our individual concerns, work together to get out of it and get over this gloom-and-doom mentality.

What do you think are the biggest threats to America’s position in the world today, both domestically and internationally?

Domestically, the biggest threat is big government intruding in areas where it simply shouldn’t be. It’s not what the American experiment is all about; it’s not what we ought to be advocating for the future of our children and grandchildren. We can do a lot better than that.

It seems to me that the biggest threat to American internationally is a lack of focus on what reasonably can be accomplished by a sensible American foreign policy. We want to protect America’s interests both at home and around the world, but we don’t want to be policemen for the world. We need to figure out how we balance the two without being fair weather friends — as we seem to be evolving into in Afghanistan — and without letting others expect too much from us.

What three policies would get America on track to lead the 21st century?

(a) Realize the limits that should be placed on government. This has to do both with spending “on behalf of the people” and taxes “of the people”; (b) Reaffirm the basic truth that government does not create jobs or grow an economy. Government can redistribute wealth and transfer it from makers to takers; and (c) Encourage and incentivize, through low taxes and less governmental regulations, individuals with their ability to be creative and be all that they can be.

Do you believe President Obama believes in American exceptionalism the way you define it?

No, President Obama has already said he does not believe in American exceptionalism the way we believe in it, namely that the individuals who come here from 194 countries around the world have had the opportunity to rise above their origin and their class or caste system back home and fulfill their destiny. In America, we are all blank slates who can write our own destiny. That’s not the way Obama thinks of American exceptionalism, but it is the way we should think about it.

What three books most influenced your worldview?

Friedrich von Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty“; Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind“; and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s “Liberty or Equality.”

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