American exceptionalism: Does Obama really believe in God and America?

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Feb. 7 2011 7:30 PM

Exceptionally Articulate

Obama's eloquence fails to quiet charges that he does not believe in God or America.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

President Obama does not treat all conspiracy theories alike. He dismisses those who question where he was born, but he's unsettled by those who question whether he is born again. At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, he said his Christian faith has sustained him through his presidency—"all the more so," he said, "when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Americans like their presidents to share their values, and religion is often a proxy for that connection. There has been at least some confusion about what Obama believes; in a recent poll, half of Americans said Obama holds religious values different from their own. Those who see the difference tend to view him unfavorably.

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Of the three prayer-breakfast speeches the president has given since coming to office, this was his most personal talk on faith. As Time's Michael Scherer pointed out, in 2009, Obama used the first-person pronoun I 15 times in his prayer-breakfast remarks. He used the first-person pronoun 10 times in 2010. Last week, he used it 44 times. It was hard not to see the political balancing act: He was trying to give the religious charge just enough credence to smash it to pieces. It is a strategy Obama will need to perfect as the 2012 election approaches as he faces a similar charge—"he just doesn't believe in it"—on such issues as "American exceptionalism" and capitalism itself.

All of these issues represent inroads to a broader toxic argument against Obama that Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, articulated in a strategy memo four years ago: "I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values." Penn proposed targeting Obama's "lack of American roots" by wrapping Clinton almost literally in the flag. "Let's explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy fund" What Penn wanted to do—without ever getting caught doing so—was raise the question in voter's minds: Is he one of us?

At its most corrosive, this set of issues promotes the idea that the president isn't simply supporting the "wrong" policies but has the "wrong" beliefs. But Penn failed (spectacularly), so how potent is this mix now?

It's big enough that the president had to address the religion element in his prayer breakfast. Sen. John McCain also addressed these issues when trying to make peace with Obama by defending him against the toughest conservative charge: "He is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals."

The size of the exposure may also be determined by which GOP candidates try to feed it.