We’re on live TV here, I’ve got to move.... You can tell that I’m a lame duck, because nobody is following instructions.People were applauding too much, eating into the time. He didn't have to choose to do live prime-time TV, but having chosen it, he could have made the speech very short or his people could have done something to limit the applause. But at least the early excessive applause made an opportunity for him to say something self-effacing. (And yet, was he saying that if he were not a lame duck, he could get us all to snap to following instructions? Seems dictatorish.)
But tonight it’s my turn to say thanks.... [M]y conversations with you, the American people — in living rooms and in schools; at farms and on factory floors; at diners and on distant military outposts — those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.Nicely humble. I don't remember much emphasis on conversation with ordinary Americans, but it's a nice idea, even if it's not honest. It's a riddle then isn't it? It's like the man who wasn't there. What kept him honest? Or is the point: See? I'm being transparently dishonest, claiming honesty, and you love me anyway. That's how good a man I am. Good at rhetoric that makes the crowd in the big room applaud, and who knows what's going on in the living rooms on the other side of the TV?
But Obama's party just lost the election, and whatever good he did was not good enough to propel the project forward. That's the problem to be addressed. But Obama drifts back to the past to when he "first came to Chicago... searching for a purpose to my life... working with church groups... witness[ing] the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss."
Somehow that musing over quiet unleashes a chant in the room: "4 more years! 4 more years!"
It's a presidential farewell address, and the historical reference is to George Washington, whose farewell address was all about 8 years being enough. How obtuse the crowd is! And it's obtuse for Obama to respond as he does: "I can’t do that."
He can't because the Constitution had to be amended when one President failed to follow Washington's example. It would have been better to honor the wisdom of George Washington and say that 8 years is enough for any one man. Squelch the impression that you longed for 4 more years.
But I know it must hurt that his would-be legacy-keeper lost. He'd like to believe the people would not have voted for change if only they'd had the option of voting for even more continuity than Hillary embodied.
Obama gets back to the idea of himself as a young man in Chicago, where he "learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved." He still believes in the importance of ordinary people in politics. The human masses devolve into an impersonal "it" in what seems intended to be another example of Obama's soaring rhetoric:
And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.These are great, but very familiar ideas, plugged in summarily as if they naturally followed from Obama's early Chicago years as a community organizer. More standard notions tumble out, as though this were the brainstormed first draft. We have "individual dreams," but we "strive together" for the "common good." We got immigrants and "gave... lives" fighting wars and fighting for civil rights.
It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.
The next section is about America's flaws. He intones the cliché "two steps forward... one step back." Then he lists his achievements: Cuba, the Iran agreement, killing bin Laden, same-sex marriage, Obamacare. Then he observes that the new President is about to enter. He leaves it to us to assume that's the 2 steps forward, one step back.
We have to have to make it work. We must "meet... challenges" and "remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth." The word "remain" there seems like a response to Trump's "Make America great again." America is great. We just need to stay great.
Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours.Well, that last election sure demonstrated "our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention." That's a nice gloss on what happened. To choose Hillary would have been too safe, too risk averse. That's not who we are.
The topic becomes "democracy." It's very abstract and wordy. A genuflection to democracy. That gives way to economics. Economics are important too. Economics and democracy are then merged:
[S]tark inequality is... corrosive to our democratic idea.But what can we do? Obama say "there’re no quick fixes," and:
I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free.I guess that means he agrees with Trump.
But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.That's the stock anti-Trump response. The real problem isn't cheap labor from non-Americans. It's robots.
And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.That's the pivot to the next big issue. Democracy and economics have been hit and merged. Time to talk about education, which, I assume, will be the slow fix for the aforementioned democracy and economics problems.
Oh, no. I'm wrong. Education is just the first item on a short list that also includes unions, the "social safety net," and the tax code. These are just means that "[w]e can argue about." They take us toward goals that "we can’t be complacent about." What goals? I think the goals are supposed to be a great democracy and a great economy. But he doesn't explicitly state the goals at this point. This actually turns out to be a segue into warning us about threats.
Obama speaks of "disaffection and division" and the "never realistic" vision of "a post-racial America." Without saying it explicitly, he frames the last election in terms of a racial/ethnic divide:
If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.In addition to the wealthy in "their private enclaves," there are all the people who "retreat into our own bubbles" where we indulge in "naked partisanship."
If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.
And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.The fake news problem. The Fox News problem. The Trump-is-on-Twitter problem. Obama resorts to what's been a stock argument with Democrats since the election: We need a "common baseline of facts." That always sounds to me like longing for a time when liberal mainstream media filtered the facts. That's over. What are you going to do about it? The facts are open to debate now, and many voices can be heard. If you really love democracy, why aren't you thrilled?
This idea of a common baseline of facts sets up the topic of climate change, which leads to the importance of science and a "faith in reason and enterprise" and "order based... on principles, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press."
This invocation of "order" gives Obama a chance to briefly decry "violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam" and "autocrats in foreign capitals." Obama makes the claim that during his 8-year administration, "no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland." He proceeds to mention "Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood," but those don't fit the category. They simply "remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be." Obama also takes credit for having "ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, [and] reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties."
Now, we begin to move in for a landing. Obama calls us to become politically engaged. He lists the kinds of people he's seen over the last 7 years — hopeful young people, "grieving families," "doctors and volunteer." He calls out to his wife:
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson of the South Side... for the past 25 years you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend...He calls out to his daughters (though only Malia is in the room):
Malia and Sasha...under the strangest of circumstances you have become two amazing young women.
You are smart and you are beautiful. But more importantly, you are kind and you are thoughtful and you are full of passion....He calls out to his favorite male character:
To Joe Biden... the scrappy kid from Scranton....He calls out to every hung-up person in the whole wide universe... I mean:
... to all of you out there — every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town, every kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change...He says he's "even more optimistic about this country than when we started." He shifts into the text of his own old best speech, which becomes the end of this last speech:
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.
Yes, we did.
Yes, we can.