Critic's Notebook: In Obama's Farewell Address, One Last Reminder of What Presidential Looks Like
Part victory lap, part civics lesson, part pep talk, the valedictory address was President Obama at his finest.
President Barack Obama delivered his farewell speech to the nation in Chicago Tuesday night, and it’s safe to say that the nation — or at least more than half of it — was made verklempt. Powerful, thoughtful and, despite everything that’s happened in recent months, inspiring, it was a valedictory address that made the quixotic chant of “Four more years!” that resounded throughout the arena at one point easily understandable.
The president has been a study in grace since the election, especially as contrasted to you-know-who, who despite his victory has mostly concentrated on spewing endless Twitter rants against enemies both real and imagined. Obama's speech was a potent reminder of the eloquent oratory of which we’ll be deprived in the coming years, as opposed to the grade-school-level rhetoric and school-yard taunts that will soon (shudder) be emanating from the Oval Office.
From the beginning, it was easy to tell that this wasn’t a Donald Trump rally, since the crowd actually included people of color, and nobody was wearing silly hats. Upon coming onto the stage, Obama received such a rapturous reception that he had to chide the audience to sit down.
“We’re on live TV here, I gotta move,” he reminded them.
Not surprisingly, Obama took the opportunity to tout his administration’s many accomplishments. And while he effectively rebutted the dystopic Republican portrait of a country that has gone to hell, despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, he took pains not to claim all the credit for himself.
“That’s what we did, that’s what you did,” he reminded his supporters. “You were the change. ... America is a better, stronger place than when we started.”
The speech was part civics lesson, with frequent references to historical events and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, and part pep talk. Obama immediately stifled the inevitable boos that erupted when he mentioned the upcoming presidential inauguration and rallied the American people to overcome their cynicism and participate in the democratic system to make it work better.
But he also delivered a powerful reality check. He said that the utopian talk of a “post-racial America” after he won the presidency “wasn’t realistic” and that much work needed to be done. “Hearts must change,” he pointed out. (He also quoted Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, although the passage has lost some of its luster since the publication of the book's sequel, Go Set a Watchman.)
Obama turned deadly serious when decrying the “bubbles of our social media feeds” and the “selective sorting of the facts” that has resulted in a seemingly hopelessly divided country.
“Reality has a way of catching up with you,” he said, quoting his mother, and it wasn’t hard to see that he was not so subtly addressing his successor.
Channeling his community-organizer past, Obama implored us to be the “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy,” adding that “the most important office” was that of “citizen.”
His cool demeanor began to crack when he paid lavish tribute to Michelle. Wiping away tears, he told her, “You have made me proud, and you have made the country proud.” He went on to similarly praise his daughters (“Of all I have done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad”); Vice President Joe Biden (“I’ve gained a brother”); and his staff, whom he applauded for not succumbing to cynicism.
“I’m more optimistic than when we started,” declared Obama, and it was then that you fully realized that he was transitioning from commander in chief to therapist in chief.
“It has been the honor of my life to serve you. … I won’t stop,” he assured us, invoking the slogan that accompanied his ascendancy to the presidency: “Yes we can.” Except this time, he added, “Yes we did.”
It was exactly the hopeful, comforting and responsible address that so many frightened and anxious citizens needed to hear right now. Watching him walk off the stage made you feel like a child desperately holding onto a father’s pants legs to try to prevent him from leaving the house.
POTUS and FLOTUS each took to Twitter after the address:
Thank you for everything. My last ask is the same as my first. I'm asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours.— President Obama (@POTUS) January 11, 2017