American Exceptionalism and the Presidency

My choice for a research topic originally evolved out of an interest in comparing the foreign policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  Over the summer, The New York Times ran a story detailing a “kill list” developed by the Obama Administration and the meetings held discussing who will be “nominated” to be killed or captured next (  Before that, I had read about how U.S. drone strikes could be considered to be justified by the belief in “American exceptionalism.”  I found myself comparing this to President Bush’s decisions regarding the Iraq War and how that war and the Bush Doctrine had been connected to American exceptionalism as well.

American exceptionalism has also been a topic in the 2012 Presidential Election and President Obama has departed from previous presidents by actually using the phrase in some of his speeches.  At this point, I decided I wanted to do a comparison of Presidents Bush and Obama in terms of American exceptionalism.  However, I was later encouraged by my thesis advisor, Professor Ron Schurin at the University of Connecticut, to expand my thinking.

I now propose to analyze presidents according to how their rhetoric and policies reflect the idea of American exceptionalism.  Specifically, I propose to define different types of American exceptionalism and ellucidate them with examples of presidents fit into individual categories.  To do this, I will examine presidential rhetoric and policies that reflect American exceptionalism.  In terms of research, I expect that presidential speeches, memoirs, newspaper accounts, academic articles, and other written accounts of the presidencies will make up most of the material that I ultimately draw from in forming my conclusions.

There will likely be some challenges with this approach.  One particular challenge will be how to make a determination when a president’s rhetoric differs significantly from some of the policies he pursued.  In these circumstances, I will ultimately have to make an overall judgment of his presidency as it relates to what type of American exceptionalism that president demonstrated.  Another challenge will likely involve determining what presidents and/or time periods to focus most on for this project.  I am especially interested in presidents of the 20th/21st centuries.

I am excited about pursuing this research because I believe that I have found a unique angle to approach the study of presidents and American exceptionalism.  Ultimately, I hope I can make some contribution to political science and this particular subject matter.  American exceptionalism has been an influential idea throughout U.S. history, and I believe it is particularly important to study how much influence it has had on our nation’s presidents.

About johnadearborn

I am a senior political science major at the University of Connecticut.
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8 Responses to American Exceptionalism and the Presidency

  1. mkellerman says:


    It might be useful to constrain your paper to one political party over a certain period of time. Doing so would give you a clearer point of comparison, e.g. ‘The Republican Conceptions of American Exceptionalism: Richard Nixon to George W. Bush.’ You could also get more specific by analyzing specific sources of conceptions of exceptionalism, for example, the role of religion in Republican conceptions of American exceptionalism. Good luck!

    • johnadearborn says:

      That would definitely be an interesting idea. I’ve also been thinking about Wilson, FDR, and Obama’s conceptions of American exceptionalism and comparing them. Thanks for the feedback!

  2. John:

    I wasn’t sure from your description whether you are constraining yourself only to actions that the Presidents themselves justified or explained using the term “American Exceptionalism,” or whether you are applying an independent definition of the term to Presidential actions regardless of whether the Presidents applied the term to those actions. If it’s the latter, what is your understanding of what the term means and how it can be detected in presidential actions?

    • johnadearborn says:

      Good question! I am applying an independent definition of the term to Presidential actions; the only President to actually use the phrase “American exceptionalism” is President Obama. There’s some criteria for doing that based on some of the literature that I’ve read. One of the most important things I’ll be looking at is Presidential rhetoric. A working definition for “American exceptionalism” that I have right now is this: the idea that the United States has a unique history of liberty and democracy and that, as a result, America will inevitably succeed domestically and globally as the premier benevolent world power and the model nation for the world. That’s the definition I’ve come up with based on all the literature I’ve gone through. And I’ll most likely be looking specifically at Presidents Wilson, Nixon, Carter, Bush, and Obama for this project.

  3. leonard.horne says:

    Hey John,

    This is very interesting stuff! I like the comments made above with respect to your approach. One thing that came to my mind while I was reading your post and the subsequent comments was the possibility of including in your research the following question: What is it about American exceptionalism that appeals to voters (who ultimately decide whether or not an individual will remain in office or not, if one controls for other factors that influence their perception of a given politician)?

    In other words, does American exceptionalism work as a political ploy? Why or why not? Is it more useful as a political ploy and is crafting policy with this concept in mind advantageous for the United States in the short and/or long term?

    Just a few ideas/questions to get the gears grinding! Good luck; this paper is bound to be good.

    • johnadearborn says:

      Thank you for the ideas, Leonard! Those are definitely very good questions. I do think politicians often judge referencing American exceptionalism to be advantageous to them, including both Mitt Romney and President Obama in this election. Romney has called for another “American century” as the main idea of his foreign policy. Obama felt compelled to respond to Romney’s charge that he doesn’t believe in exceptionalism by saying that his own life is a tribute to the reality of the idea.

  4. This sounds like really interesting stuff, John! I’ll look forward to hearing about your progress on this. One question—are you going to limit yourself to your independent definition of “American Exceptionalism,” or will you spend some time looking at the concept and its possible definitions more broadly? (I only ask because I’m not terribly familiar with the precise meaning and boundaries of the idea.)

    • johnadearborn says:

      That’s a great question! At this point, I’ve developed my independent definition of “American Exceptionalism” based on the literature I’ve read on the subject, and I wanted to make sure the definition was directly applicable to Presidents. But I continue to do research on this to look at the different elements and some of the different types of exceptionalism that have been proposed (mostly related to human rights). I suspect I’ll be adjusting it more.

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