Obama’s Imperfect Union

The president’s speech in Selma wasn’t attacking America’s greatness. It was offering a more honest history of who we are and can be.

US President Barack Obama speaks during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
President Barack Obama speaks during an event marking the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

After Rudy Giuliani challenged President Obama’s patriotism and love of country, I wrote that the former New York mayor—while wrong—touched on “a real difference between Obama’s brand of national exceptionalism and the kind we tend to see from America’s presidents.” Like his predecessors, Obama holds the United States as a place of exceptional ideals and aspirations, but he tempers his vision with civic humility and an awareness of American injustice. For those unaccustomed to this approach, it sounds like an attack on American greatness. But Obama isn’t critiquing America as much as he’s trying—in fits and starts—to construct a usable history, an inclusive account that illuminates and inspires.

On Saturday, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Selma, Alabama, President Obama gave his best version of that account, building an American exceptionalism that neither ignores our history nor casts it as irredeemable. As is appropriate for a commemoration of the “Bloody Sunday” march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Obama rooted his narrative in the civil rights movement and the particular actions of the men and women who faced the brutal enforcers of Jim Crow on March 7, 1965. “There are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided,” said Obama. “Selma is such a place.” The struggle on the bridge, he continued, “was a contest to determine the meaning of America,” where “the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America … ultimately triumphed.”

The events at Selma, he declared, were a “manifestation” of the words of the Declaration of Independence and a prime example of democratic self-governance. In marching against Jim Crow on a monument to white supremacy, the activists of Selma were working in the tradition of the Founding Fathers and of generations of Americans who believed that “America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo,” Obama said.

In this narrative of American history, the black struggle for freedom is at the center of our national story, an emblematic example of America’s actual exceptionalism. Not its people per se, but their belief in the capacity for change and their conviction that they can stand as the agents of their own destiny. “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this … that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals,” Obama said.

Obama isn’t an à la carte patriot, and he doesn’t diminish our flaws. Racism exists. Oppression and disadvantage are real. But he “rejects the notion that nothing has changed” and refuses to “deny progress,” calling the competing impulse an error that “robs us of our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

What’s key for Obama is that everyone has a part to play in achieving our country’s ideals. In ruminating on America’s exceptionalism, he goes beyond the usual touchstones to include abolitionists and suffragettes, Native Americans and slaves, Holocaust survivors and Soviet defectors, interned Japanese and undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ activists and volunteers for war.

Obama’s America isn’t a perfect place. But it is a place where collective action can make radical change and push us toward a more authentic version of our national self. In this American dialectic, the struggle for freedom against tyranny—of white supremacy, of economic exploitation, of gender discrimination—yields a more perfect union that nonetheless needs more struggle, more work.

Obama’s Selma speech is a clear response to years of Republican criticism, from outlandish accusations of Marxism to Giuliani’s crude attacks on his patriotism. But it’s also encouragement to those who look at our problems—our terrible inequality and immense disadvantage—and see a future of futility. “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished,” he said. “But we are getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer.”

For Obama, America is neither faultless nor broken. It is a work in progress, and what it needs are the clear eyes and full hearts it takes to get it right.