E. J. Dionne lauds Joe Biden for getting it right when it comes to the question of whether America is in decline. According to Dionne, who sat down for an interview with the vice president on Tuesday, Biden words rushed forth in a “torrent, in red, white and blue” when Dionne asked him whether we’ll continue to hear more “U.S. as second best” from the administration. Apparently, both Biden and Dionne share the same sort of patriotism — big-government patriotism. Biden explained that the country “will continue to be the most significant and dominant influence in the world as long as our economy is strong, growing and responsive to 21st-century needs. And they relate to education, they relate to energy, and they relate to health care.” Each of those priorities not coincidentally lies where the president wants the government to have a central role.
Dionne applauded that line of thinking: “Notice that when Obama spoke about keeping America in first place, he said not a word about the military. He referred instead to the efforts of our competitors in the public sphere of the economy, and of our past complacency.” Obama and Biden, Dionne explained, “believe that American power depends ultimately on the American economy, and that government has an essential role to play in fostering the next generation of growth.”
What’s interesting about this mode of thinking is not that it disregards our projection of diplomatic, humanitarian, and yes, military greatness in the world, a point Dionne seems to celebrate. The U.S. does more to protect the free — and much of the unfree –world than any other country in the world, if not in history. But I’m willing to set that debate aside for a moment and focus on Dionne’s point. His point is that “American preeminence” depends significantly on the projection of public, government authority. What Biden and Dionne disregard, then, is not our military greatness, but our individual greatness. The exceptionalism of America lies not in how many trillions of dollars its government can spend to try to right the ship, but in the ability of our inventors, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and yes, even our large businesses, to adjust, grow, and thrive. Individual exceptionalism is the greatness of our country, and while no one is saying that government can or should disappear, its job is to foster that greatness, not supplant it.
I’d be a lot happier about Biden’s enthusiasm if he had even mentioned the greatness of private America.