I think President Obama got it wrong when he defined American exceptionalism as “our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Almost all democracies believe in the same principles, so that doesn’t make us exceptional (although we were the first to proclaim them in just this way).
I think Obama was closer to the mark in the middle of his speech, when he said this: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American….”
To me – that’s it! Freedom is a “given” (too-often taken for granted) but what makes America exceptional is the twin streams of equality and opportunity.