One day in 1984, at the height of his fame, Michael Jackson made a visit to the White House. President and Nancy Reagan may not have dug his music, but they understood the power Mr. Jackson commanded as a common pop-cultural touchstone for just about everyone else. Mr. Jackson had given the White House permission to use his smash hit “Beat It” in a campaign to halt teen drinking and driving, and the Reagans wanted to bestow on him a public-safety award and their personal thanks.
The now-iconic photograph of their visit reveals much about the towering personalities and even more about America. Mr. Jackson stands between the Reagans, wearing a tamer version of his famous sequined faux-military costume. Hands clasped in front of him, he waits silently as the president finishes making a point to Mrs. Reagan. He gazes up at the president, his eyes as wide as saucers. His awe is palpable. The world’s greatest performer has discovered himself on a stage even bigger and more profound than the ones he is used to occupying.
The boy from Tampico, Ill., standing with the boy from Gary, Ind.: two children of the Midwest who went on to become among the most influential people the world has ever known. Their stories, although distinct, share one thing in common: They are quintessentially American.
During his public life, Barack Obama has often referred to his biracial background and itinerant childhood and has said, “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” True.
But earlier this year, while attending the European summit of the Group of 20 major economic countries, the president was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism. He replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Not exactly the way Mr. Reagan would have answered.
American exceptionalism is grounded in the founding of the United States upon an idea, rather than upon the ambitions of men. Indeed, it was designed to be a nation of laws and specifically not of men, built on the concept of individual liberty and equal justice before the law, with freedoms ranging from speech to worship, and rights from gun ownership to assembly.
The Founding Fathers institutionalized these freedoms so we would be safe from the overweening burdens and capricious claims of a too-powerful state. These freedoms would allow individuals to do as they pleased within the confines of the law and to achieve, in ways big and small, to the benefit of the country as a whole.
Even in extremely difficult times, American exceptionalism survived. Faced with the darkest days of civil and foreign wars; economic depression and recessions; weak leadership at home or aggressive, hostile leadership from abroad; the American people kept faith in the uniqueness of our democratic experiment. Liberty provides opportunity, which is why in our 233 short years, we have produced (even with its flaws and flawed representatives) the greatest democracy in the world, the most productive engine of economic growth, the most influential culture and the most far-reaching effects of innovation.
President Obama’s reference to British or Greek exceptionalism suggests a belief that the United States doesn’t stand alone with a particular greatness but that every nation is great in its own way and America is simply one of many nations with something cool to offer.
This kind of multicultural, politically correct, “we’re all unique in unique ways, every kid must win at dodgeball” thinking is the basis for his economic and foreign policies, from his schemes to nationalize the auto, banking, and health care industries to his lollygagging on behalf of those fighting for greater freedom in Iran.
It is the rationale for his Vesuvian explosion of big government and the much higher taxes required to finance it. It also explains Mr. Obama’s irrepressible urge to apologize for past perceived American injustices and ill-conceived foreign “meddling.” In Mr. Obama’s kaleidoscopic left-wing view, no nation is better than any other, no country can tell another country not to have nuclear weapons, and we’re all socialists now.
In other words, American exceptionalism was so last century.
The man who acknowledged that his story would only be possible in America seems intent on destroying the very individual liberties and limited government that made it so. When government gets out of the way, the people achieve great things because of the promise of great rewards. When government inserts itself into every nook and cranny of American life, the people wither, disincentivized from the hard work and sacrifice required for high accomplishment.
Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan came from nothing to scale the greatest heights. So did Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon, two other cultural icons who passed away last week. They were able to superachieve because government didn’t stop them, shake them down and confiscate their hard-earned bounty. Only by returning to limited government will we ensure that we remain the only country on Earth where stories like theirs are still possible.