Obama’s Speech was Powerful and Flawed
President Barack Obama gave an incredible Farewell Address tonight. He spoke about the meaning of democratic citizenship, and invoked the historical effort to realize the egalitarian ideals enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. He paraphrased King about the moral arc of the universe bending toward progress. He appealed to civic virtue, and solidarity, and a spirit of democratic egalitarianism. He underscored the importance of trying to understand the standpoints of others and of the need for coalitions, and compromises, based on differences of identities, values, and opinions. He named historical struggles to achieve greater justice, and called upon us, as Americans, to continue the struggle. He appealed to our better angels.
It was a powerful speech, and a moving one.
It was Obama at his best.
Ever since Aristotle, we have known that language is what makes possible politics. Obama is a rhetorician in the best sense. He takes words seriously. He uses words to open us to the perspectives of others and to move us to do good. In his speeches, he both articulates and enacts the dignity of public life and the possibilities of democratic equality. And as listeners of his speeches, we are elevated as citizens.
Obama sounded all the right notes tonight.
He identified the main economic, cultural, and environmental challenges ahead. He underscored the importance of democracy as a means of crafting publicly intelligent and publicly legitimate responses to these challenges. He reminded us of the importance of democratic citizenship and of the fact that this citizenship must be exercised in order to be maintained.
The speech was all the more powerful in light of the obvious contrast with what we can expect from his successor. There will be no such speeches from Donald Trump. This is known. It is not in his repertoire. It is not within his intellectual ability. It is not within his character. We have seen and heard him speak, or rather angrily shout. We have seen him disparage and demean. We have seen him harass and threaten. We have seen him vilify others, and appeal to the basest forms of nativism and tribalism. We have seen the sneer on his face. We know what to expect from him. He will use words to aggrandize himself and to dominate. And he will aggrandize himself. And he will dominate.
It was impossible to watch and listen to Obama tonight without being painfully aware of this.
The greatness of Obama’s speech is that he reminded us of values worth fighting for and of the importance of public integrity.
And this was also the weakness of the speech. It was a powerful sermon about values. But it lacked any sense of urgency. It was too much like Obama’s earlier speeches. But now things are different. For Obama’s values have been defeated at the ballot box (yes, that defeat is tainted; but alas, it is real nonetheless, if only because it will not be politically contested — Obama himself has made sure of this — and in a few days Donald Trump will be inaugurated as President). Obama’s signature legislative achievements are in danger of being revoked. The Democratic party — about which Obama said nothing in his speech — is in shambles, shut out of the national government and of a majority of state governments. And Obama’s anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, was defeated by a man who exults in bigotry, xenophobia, horrific sexism, and utter contempt for political disagreement. Donald Trump, the father of Birtherism, is a repudiation of everything that Obama stands for. Obama has dignity. But Trump now has power.
Let me be clear. I am not one of those who has gone from adulation to hatred of Obama. I never believed that he represented the promise of democratic progressivism, for I have long believed that the social and political infrastructure for such a politics has long been eroded. Obama had successes and failures. He did some things well and other things less well. He did not build upon the momentum of his initial victory to empower the left or the Democratic party. He had a Congressional majority for a time, and he perhaps could have done more with it. But he confronted big challenges from the start, and faced enormous political obstacles, and a vicious opposition that was inflected with racial resentment, and he became constrained by the structures and the ideologies of state power, no less but also no more than almost every President before him.
Obama is a great man. He surmounted incredible obstacles to become the first African-American President in US history. He has behaved with grace under fire and has consistently been a voice of public reason. He represents the best that political liberalism has had to offer. This is not to be taken lightly. If anyone doubts this, let them think for two minutes about what now comes next.
At the same time, as he departs the historical scene, he leaves us terrified and politically weakened. He is not responsible for Trump. But Trump is what his eight years in office have bequeathed to us, not in the sense of moral responsibility, but in the sense of political responsibility.
And what was most disappointing about his speech tonight was that it failed to register this in any real way.
Obama might want to go out on a positive note. He might want to “go high when they go low.” And I surely understand that he is committed to a certain “decorum,” and does not wish to use his Farewell Address to attack Trump or to rally his supporters in opposition to Trump.
But this is the man who still talks about political organizing and who still quotes Douglass and King and Alinsky. And this is the man who a few months ago was out on the campaign trail saying the absolute truth about Donald Trump — that he lacks the political or the personal abilities to be President, that he is a fool and a bully, that he is a danger to the republic.
We needed something more tonight from Obama’s powerful speech. We needed some outrage and indignation, or at least some appreciation for the outrage and indignation felt and expressed by so many, including those protestors who today sought to disrupt the testimony of Jeff Sessions, but also those many thousands who are planning to descend on Washington, DC, and to March on behalf of Women, in protest of Trump’s inauguration. We needed some concrete talk about the importance of rebuilding the Democratic party from the ground up, and of rebuilding those movements, including the labor movement, that are necessary to contribute to this task.
We needed a candid acknowledgement from President Obama that these are very dark times for democracy, and that the incoming administration represents a threat to the very values he speaks of, and that our citizenship will truly be tested in the days and weeks to come.
The speech represented all that is great about Obama, and it reminded us of how much this will be missed.
But it also represented the limits of uplifting rhetoric in a time of crisis, especially when this rhetoric is not linked to a real political vision and some real ideas about how to empower this vision.
In a few days Obama will fly off into the sunset, and we will be left with Trump, and with Pence and Sessions, and Bannon and Flynn and Conway and Priebus and Ryan and McConnell and the rest.
We have our work cut out for us.