President Obama and what America is all about

New York TimesFebruary 13, 2014 

Call me obtuse, but I was surprised when President Obama, running for re-election two summers ago, declared that Costco is “representative of what America is all about.” It is? More than the Marshall Plan or the Bill of Rights? Or Walmart?

Well, now things are confusing because Costco also got a shout-out in the State of the Union address as a shining discount-warehouse on the hill – but the meaning-of-America encomium was now conferred on the rewards of capitalism: “Americans understand that some people will earn more money than others, and we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success. That’s what America’s all about.”

Well, why not? Horatio Alger. The American dream.

The president wasn’t saying something that hadn’t been said before. The trouble is, he keeps changing his story.

Just two days later, in Nashville, Mr. Obama was anointing, as our defining quality, not the big payday but educational opportunity: “Now, giving every student that chance – that’s our goal. That’s what America is all about.”

Really? Two weeks earlier, in Raleigh, N.C., the president had offered a different formulation for American-ness: R & D.

“And that’s what America is all about,” he declared. “We have always been about research, innovation, and then commercializing that research and innovation so that everybody can benefit.”

Talk about “about face.” Any day now, he will say America is all about nougat.

On sundry occasions, the president has cited quality manufacturing, military service, freedom from discrimination, community service and succeeding from humble beginnings as the unique characteristic that explains our nation. Goodness gracious, Hamlet dithered less.

But I’m not blaming Mr. Obama for a podium reflex. That’s not what I’m about.


When it comes to turning every issue into a matter of fundamental Americanism, the Definer in Chief has no monopoly on glib reductions of the national essence. A swift survey finds that “what America is all about” is also: ignoring educated elites (Thomas Sowell); Condoleezza Rice’s career (John McCain); exceptionalism (Fred Thompson); amoral ambition (William Gaddis); community service (Penny Pritzker); and gun ownership (The American Spectator).

The exercise seems to be something of a Rorschach test, telling us more about the American than America itself. Take Terry Thompson, a man quoted last December by Bloomberg News, who believes the Detroit autoworker is what America is all about. Mr. Thompson is a Detroit autoworker.

The impulse for reductiveness is like one of those stick-on closet lights: seldom very illuminating. Obviously, America is about many things: political freedom, economic opportunity, the melting pot, cat videos, the cult of celebrity, the cult of the military, franchised inauthentic ethnic cuisine, “super PACs” and 89 brands of riding mower. But none of them singularly defines the American way.

The question really is, what is America all about that is truly distinctive? Helping others less fortunate is a genuinely American impulse, but it ranks high in Norway, too. Likewise, the notion of exceptionalism: We may deem the American way, in peace and war, to be a cut above, but a similar sense of self-regard runs pretty high in Serbia, I hear. And let us not even discuss French chauvinism, the finest in the world.

To divine our one true essence, should we not settle on a list of defining institutions both transcendent and rare? I humbly propose the following: the Constitution, Nasdaq … and Costco.

The New York Times

Bob Garfield is a writer and a host of the WNYC radio program “On the Media.”

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