The Increasingly Lonely Hope of Barack Obama
“You can tell I’m a lame duck,” Barack Obama joked before his farewell address, on Tuesday night, in Chicago, “because nobody’s following instructions.” This was a teasing reference to the unbridled whoop of cheers that had gone up as he’d appeared at the podium; despite his best efforts, the President couldn’t convince the twenty-thousand-person congregation of true believers and long-standing aides to quiet down and take a seat. The quip also worked as a mordant description of the wider atmosphere of chaos and unpredictability that has taken hold during the two months since Donald Trump’s still-shocking election as Obama’s successor. To the extent that there exist “instructions” for a dignified transfer of power in America, they would seem to include the principle of “one President at a time,” a willingness on the part of the President-elect to communicate at reasonable intervals via press conference rather than Twitter outburst, and a general disinclination to comment on the fortunes of once-storied reality shows or the Golden Globes. Trump, in shredding these unwritten rules to ribbons, has made them seem instantly outdated. In the hours before Obama’s speech, a series of news reports and document dumps concerning the role of Russian interference on Trump’s behalf only served to deepen the impression of disorder.
The farewell address gave Obama one last opportunity to exert control, if only of the rhetorical kind, over national events. Eventually, the crowd quieted, and Obama insisted, as has been his habit recently, on recalling the accomplishments of his Administration. “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history,” he began, “if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another twenty million of our fellow-citizens, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.” That last phrase was an echo of Obama’s victory speech after the 2008 caucus in Iowa. “They said our sights were set too high,” he said that night, inaugurating a tradition of smilingly chiding his doubters—“cynics,” he called them—that has continued, essentially unchanged, for the past nine years.
The coming Trump Administration will be a monumental test of Obama’s enduring optimism, and, perhaps, of his impatience with those who don’t share it. On Tuesday night, Obama carried on his long-running argument in favor of positive thinking, not as a perfect analytical tool—“there will be times when the process disappoints you,” he said—but, instead, as a moral obligation, and an instrument in the work of continual American renewal. Trust me, he seemed to be saying: you’ll need it.
Obama said the name Trump precisely once, and then only to extol the glories of the peaceful Presidential transfer. Still, it was impossible to interpret the speech without reference to the man who will be remembered by history as Obama’s foil. The President cannily framed his successor’s stated policy preferences not only as ill-advised but as directly opposed to the health of American cohesion. The most conspicuous spoke of this argument was a passage about race. For all his restraint, and despite his sometimes maddening insistence upon rhetorical balance, Obama, has, since his “race speech” of 2008, been uncommonly willing to wade into the intricacies of the subject. This time, with Trump as the implied target, he trained his focus on the country’s capacity to welcome the children of immigrants. “If we decline to invest” in them, he said, “we diminish the prospects of our own children—because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.” He reminded those who cheer Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric that “the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles.” America, he said, “wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.”
Obama also levelled particularly pointed challenges to both sides of the black-white dialectic that has guided and determined so much of the country’s history. From blacks “and other minorities”—one imagined that he had youthful, campus-grown activists, affiliated with Black Lives Matter and other related movements, in mind—he requested an interesting bit of imaginative enlargement. We should link “our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.” On the other hand, he continued, white Americans should acknowledge that “the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the sixties; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”
This opposition laid bare an aspect of Obama’s analysis that puts him increasingly out of step with much of the current thinking. For Obama, racism is real, and still pervasive—his background means that he could never have been shielded from this fact—but it is not a necessarily permanent feature of American life. While he is not shy about invoking the horrors of slavery, he never drops the word “racism”—with its civil-rights-era-descended promise of eventual eradicability—in favor of the phrase “white supremacy,” which has lately come to signal an almost mystical belief in racial oppression as our founding national fact. Obama does subscribe to a civic metaphysics, but it is centered instead on the bonds between people and the perennial American ability to change. He spoke last night of “the sacred ties that make us one,” and this was the closest he came to religious language, apart from the perfunctory “God bless” toward the end.
It is not, Obama said, “that our nation has been flawless from the start but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.” This version of American exceptionalism, he suggested, might prove more lasting than our oldest and bloodiest divisions. The President is an increasingly lonely torchbearer for the “We Shall Overcome” generation. It is striking, in this regard, that the lone literary reference in the speech was not to someone like James Baldwin—who often spoke of an American religion, centered on white skin—but to Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “You never really understand a person,” Obama said, quoting Finch, “until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Obama’s faith in the eventual solubility of things is closely related to his reverence for the Enlightenment, which he name-checked while speaking of another good that Trump threatens to destroy: the truth. Obama posited reason as the link between challenges as diverse as climate change and international terrorism, placing it as a counterpoint to fear, which might tempt our citizenry to shake off, or take “for granted,” the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
But the most moving portion of the speech was more personal: a tribute to Michelle Obama, “girl of the South Side.” While the President spoke to his wife, he briefly lost his cool—that prized possession—and dabbed away a tear or two with a handkerchief. He went on to thank his daughters; Malia was seated next to her mother, also wiping away tears, while Sasha was reportedly back in Washington, because she had a midyear exam on Wednesday morning. The President thanked his Vice-President, Joe Biden, and the rest of the people who had made possible his time in office. And here, too, was a contrast with Trump, who has yet to demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly to praise a person other than himself. We were reminded, once again, that part of the “soft power” that accompanies the Presidency, for good or ill, is the appearance of wholesomeness, of moral capacity, of love. For eight years, putting policy aside, Obama has displayed those qualities. It remains to be seen—but gets clearer as the transition daily shortens—which attributes of Trump’s will fill the void.