Keeping up with the news probably has been very discouraging recently for many Americans. In one 24-hour period, sobering reports poured in warning of historic catastrophes in the United States and Europe.
There was a manhunt for al Qaeda terrorists possibly in the United States to mark the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 with another attack on New York or Washington. The New York Police Department set up checkpoints all over Manhattan. Authorities searched vehicles. They manned bridges and tunnels. Government officials said the threat was one of the most specific and credible they had seen in a decade.
At the same time, news outlets began predicting an imminent Greek default that could spark an economic crisis, driving Europe into depression and maybe dragging the United States along with it.
These were reasons enough for most Americans to feel insecure, but there was one other especially worrisome item in the news that day.
It came near the end of President Obama’s jobs speech before Congress. After outlining his proposals and promising to discover a way to pay for them, he attempted to place his administration’s unprecedented spending bender and rash of new regulations in the context of American history. He tried to argue that big government was part of “the story of America.”
As proof of his assertion, the president claimed that Abraham Lincoln was “a Republican president who mobilized government to build the Transcontinental Railroad, launch the National Academy of Sciences, [and] set up the first land grant colleges.” Mr. Obama assigned the government credit for creating computers and the Internet, for America’s universities and for building our airports.
His history was dubious and, in some cases, flat-out wrong. But what was more concerning than any particular claim was the president’s deliberate effort to redefine what America means. He tried to ally his program of bureaucracy and overspending with a story of America that is different from the one we know - a story in which big government is what has helped make us great.
Tales of Lincoln cannot excuse the president’s overspending, his aggressive expansion of government control or his mismanagement of the economy. These are themselves historic.
America has been defined by its value of freedom and its virtue of personal responsibility. It is set apart by respect for the rule of law over arbitrary dictates. It prospers by leaving to civil society what bureaucracies will never do well.
These are what have made America exceptional, not government.
When audiences have asked me over the past several months what motivates my ideas for America’s future, I have replied that I am especially concerned about three things: an external shock to our economy sending America deeper into depression, the threat of a catastrophic terrorist attack, and the effort of the left to redefine the meaning of American civilization.
The vulnerability of our economy to an event like a Greek collapse is significant. A serious external shock could make the situation much worse even than it is today. And as the Sept. 11 anniversary should remind us, terrorism is still with us. The threat of a dangerous ideology to our safety is still severe.
In the long run, though, we can overcome these problems even if we do face setbacks. That is why I believe the challenge to American exceptionalism by a governing figure who wants to change our story is just as significant a threat.
The ideas on which our country was founded - that you personally are sovereign and you lend power to the government, that no government has a right to come between you and God, that personal responsibility and industry are habits of liberty - are not in need of revision. They have guided us for more than 200 years. More recently, they are what have helped distinguish us from European social democracies.
Americans cannot be reminded of that true history too often. If we do face another economic crisis or a terrorist attack, we will need to understand it. The threats to liberty in such moments can be great. People will not live in fear. In times of hardship, we will only retain the character that makes America exceptional if we appreciate what it is.
That is why the end of the president’s speech, amid all the other sobering news, was so significant. It is why I wrote “A Nation LikeNoOther” about American exceptionalism earlier this year. It is why I find the Tea Party citizen movement so encouraging. And it is why I talk about this topic everywhere I go.
We cannot afford leaders who do not understand the real story of America - even less so ones who try to spin it.
Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, is running for the Republican nomination for president. Ross Worthington, who edits Human Events’ Newt Gingrich letter, contributed to this article.
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