Wednesday, January 11, 2017

President Obama's Farewell

President Barack Obama gave his presidential "Farewell Address" last night.  The usual site for such speeches (in my lifetime) has been the White House's Oval Office, obviously the most dignified setting for such an event. But the President (perhaps expressing a post-modern preference for personalizing these things) spoke from Chicago, his home town as an adult. (Contemporary cosmopolitans often have more than one "home town.")

The first such "Farewell Address" I can remember was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People on January 17, 1961. Historically, it probably ranks with George Washington's "Farewell Address" (never actually delivered, but rather published in Philadelphia's American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796) as one of the two most memorable such offerings. Eisenhower's was justly famous, of course, for his profound warning: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.As a 12-year old watching him speak in the traditional dignity of the Oval Office, I barely noticed those words and had no sense of their significance until several years later.

Barack Obama was still in his mother's womb when Eisenhower gave that address. A lot has changed since then, both for the better and for worse. Accordingly Obama gave a very different kind of speech in a very different, much more emotional kind of setting.  And, while I could genuinely appreciate the emotion of those in the audience, I still found the setting jarring. Not only did it slow his delivery and distract attention from his words, it made the event seem more like a campaign rally than a Farewell Address. Of course, given the historic character of Obama's presidency and what is about to replace it, maybe it inevitably acquires the character of a continuing campaign.

Hence the poignancy of the crowd's chant of "four more years." Of course, he can't have four more years, because of a singularly stupid constitutional amendment that represented mid-20th-century Republicans' revenge against FDR. Five presidents have been affected by that ridiculous amendment. Four of them - 2 Republicans (Eisenhower and Reagan) and 2 Democrats (Clinton and Obama) - ended their second terms with high popularity and most likely could have won a third term had they been able to run. Given what awaits us in a few more days, it is even harder not to lament the undemocratic absurdity of the 22nd amendment!

In many ways, the speech itself was standard Obama oratory. It was very personal, identifying (as he consistently has throughout his public career) his own personal story with the American story, rooted in the Founders' vision of individual rights and the historical struggles of Americans in all their diversity, and in the simultaneous conviction "that we are all in this together, that we rise and fall as one." Not one to shy away from the big picture, his speech was a discourse on "the state of our democracy."

The President praised the gains that have been made and (in standard progressive fashion) pointed to what is yet to be accomplished. There is, it seems, always a certain insatiability to progressive politics, which, whether acknowledged or not, may itself undermine the social solidarity of which Obama so eloquently spoke and which is so necessary for a successful democracy. 

In addition to the obvious challenges to democracy posed by economic inequality and persistent racism, both of which he addressed, he was particularly on target when he highlighted "a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible."

It seems evident that this will not be a quietly retired ex-President. He has outlined an agenda and obviously intends to remain engaged in the arena.

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