It lacked the fearsomeness of Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell warnings about the “military-industrial complex” or George Washington’s goodbye concern about foreign entanglements. At times, it seemed oddly showy, what with 25,000 in attendance and it being bookended by music from U2 and Bruce Springsteen. And it was long, almost an hour. But Barack Obama’s farewell speech was worthy of a president who galvanized a nation. It was a fitting, if occasionally gassy, coda to his eight years in office delivered just before the beginning of the Donald Trump era.
In some ways it was a campaign speech, a battle cry for the next chapter of the 55-year-old’s life. After repeatedly imploring Americans to fight for their democracy, he said: “I’ll be right there with you...for all the rest of my days.” No one could have mistaken the message. He was not going to devote himself simply to good works like Jimmy Carter, global dealing like Bill Clinton or the more humble post-presidency of George W. Bush. He’d stay in the arena.
Obama’s call for civic involvement, from urging citizens to get off the internet and engage their neighbors “in real life” to pushing them to grab “a clipboard” and run for office, was befitting a community organizer and the first African-American president. In some ways, Obama grafted his own biography onto his message, noting that he’d found his calling in public service in Chicago not far from the McCormick Center where he spoke.
There was no mention of Trump by name, but Obama clearly had him in mind when he talked about not demonizing opponents; about relying on science and reason when it comes to climate change and other issues; and in repeated and much-cheered bromides that Muslims, refugees and immigrants should be embraced and not belittled. Progress, he said, sometimes takes “two steps forward, and one step back.” And he seemed to take aim at the president-elect on race and jobs: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities,” he said, “then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
Like most presidents, Obama did some boasting on his way out of office. He twice mentioned killing Osama bin Laden and took pride in the growth of the American economy and restoration of the auto industry, as well as his historic expansion of health insurance. “Yes, we can,” he said, echoing his famous campaign rallying cry. “Yes, we did.”
He also ignored some sore spots in his record. There was no mention of Syria. He talked about efforts to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba but did not elaborate on his failure to get Congress to agree. Oddly, there was no mention of the two women he nominated to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, but predictably there was also no mention of his third nominee, Merrick Garland, who never received a vote.
There were plenty of nods to his voting coalition—millennials and union members, for instance. At one point he asked the audience to imagine all of the things that seemed impossible in 2008 and are now a reality. He included “marital equality” although it was something he publicly opposed until 2013. He invoked the moon landing, the first flight at Kitty Hawk, the Stonewall riot and the Underground Railroad.
At times, he called for empathy, and at times it fell flat. At one point, he mentioned a “middle-aged white guy 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.” Years from now, that sop to Trump voters is unlikely to be quoted.
But his call for a reality-based politics in which people leave the “bubble” of their “social feed” and engage with those whom they disagree may prove enduring. As Americans increasingly silo themselves by news and neighborhood in what’s been called “the big sort,” the possibilities for empathy decrease, Obama said. And he’s right. That’s not a terribly new point, but it is a central one as Americans can’t even seem to agree on a common set of facts in the age of #fakenews.
Yet in an hourlong address—which included Obama’s long riffs about his wife, Michelle, Vice President Joe Biden and campaign workers from his Senate and presidential races—his best lines were a bit buried. That’s what happens when you’re thanking the military multiple times in the same speech and offering multiple references to the bravery of slaves. Obama’s warning about automation replacing more jobs than bad trade deals felt like a throwaway line. (I half hoped he’d offer a Eisenhoweresque warning about the coming wars with robots, like in the Terminator movies.)
Ultimately, though, the speech worked because of Obama’s remarkable journey and his sheer capacity to drive an audience. And what an audience. The giant crowd, which at first seemed like a self-promoting stage prop, akin to those Greek columns that festooned his 2008 convention appearance, made more sense as the speech wore on. The faces of adoring fans, the tears of African Americans, the gentle hug of the first lady and daughter Malia—all were reminders of how far Obama had come from his humble roots as a mixed-race kid in Hawaii and Indonesia. The crowd was a reminder of how much hope had been invested in Obama and how he’d been energized by it. When he left the stage to the sounds of Springsteen’s “City of Hopes and Dreams,” you couldn’t forget the hope he inspired, how much he accomplished, how much he didn’t and how the president-elect, who also loves a crowd, couldn’t be more different.