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Advice for Obama's next speech on the economy

President Obama, a few notes on Monday's economy speech, since I have a sinking feeling it might not be your last:

(1) When trying to inspire confidence that we are not headed into another Great Depression, a good tactic is to not deliver your chat at a fireside. It inspires the vague desire to start hoarding bits of tin.

(2) You do realize that no matter how many times you say, "No matter what some agency may say, we've always been and always will be a Triple-A country," that doesn't make it true? It's the same as if you told Malia or Sasha: "No matter what your teacher may say, you always have been and always will be a straight-A student."

(3) You shouldn't start a speech by saying that America's problem is "a lack of political will in Washington" and end the speech by saying that the great thing about America is that "we've always not just had the capacity but also the will to act."

This speech had the strange whiff of desperation that has crept increasingly into the president's communications. It is the sort of speech that comes at 3 a.m. from someone you thought you had succeeded in breaking up with. "But our universities are still the best! And we are very entrepreneurial! And Warren Buffett believes in us!" followed by inarticulate sobbing and the sound of someone falling off a table.

What was striking about the president's remarks was how close all this came to sounding like American Exceptionalism 2.0. Obama never uses the word "exceptionalism. " But that's what his conclusion boiled down to.

Best schools in the world -- well, not exactly.

Best entrepreneurs in the world -- well, maybe.

Most productive workers in the world -- sure, if you don't check our browser histories.

But we are still the best -- the best at being American! What this means often comes into question. It's Unexceptional Exceptionalism, the idea that we are the best Simply Because We Are.

The term "exceptionalism" used to come freighted with something else -- the idea that we were a sort of city on a hill with a unique, if not uniquely efficient, system of government; a set of common ideals; and a population willing to strive for great things.

But as he spoke, Obama listed a bit toward redefining "best" to mean "whatever America happens to be at the time." This goes only so far. In a few years, if such redefinitions continue, we'll be saying: "We are the best moderately wealthy, non-landlocked nation in the Western Hemisphere!"

But there was a bit of hope. Along with praising our dubiously excellent universities and dubiously marvelous workers, Obama noted that we are different in ways that encompass more than a perpetually divided and recalcitrant government, united by a set of common beliefs and even a shared will.

Just maybe not in Washington.


Alexandra Petri is a member of the Washington Post's editorial page staff.