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Rhetorical Recap: The Final Episode of "The Presidency, With Barack Obama"

From the web page teaser and scalped tickets to the stifling of tears and the Springsteen recessional, Barack Obama’s Farewell Address resembled nothing so much as the last broadcasts of David Letterman and Jon Stewart as talk-show hosts. Tradition promised a civics lecture, and Obama gave one, but it was staged as a campaign rally. The results were good but not great: an excellent speech theme and structure, weak argumentation, a poignant close.

***

On January 2 the White House posted a glamorous photograph of the First Couple, arms around each other, backs to the camera, gazing at the Chicago skyline above an invitation to join the president when he delivers “my grateful farewell.” The event was styled not as a farewell to the office or the nation but to “you”—“because, for me, it’s always been about you.”’ It was moved outside Washington DC for the first time, to the gigantic McCormick Convention Center, capacity 20,000. As show time approached tickets were going for as much as $5000 each.

What would he talk about? What tone would he strike? I thought he should strike a blow for national unity, which is how he burst onto the national scene. After all, George Washington did warn the American people about the “common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party” along with the more famous admonition about avoiding “foreign entanglements.” I wanted Obama to refute his critics and put his executive actions in Constitutional context as appropriate responses to genuine emergencies, not abuses of power. Last, I wanted him to tell Americans how to think about government and politics and their citizenship.

 

The program opened with some Stevie Wonder, an Obama campaign greatest hit-maker. After a jazz rendition of the national anthem, the president strode out onto the big apron to U2 and prolonged cheers.

Obama was still warming up verbally when a heckler crashed his vibe. Instead of seizing the moment, he pressed on until the crowd drowned out the dissident with a “Four More Years” chant. That lent a spontaneous and ambiguous irony to the president’s first big line:

Now this [Chicago] is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

The faithful got what they demanded, perhaps aided by security officials. But the literal demand, as the president wryly noted, he could not provide, and neither could they.

Obama then glided over American history as the Whigs propounded it, getting better all the time. He concluded the block with a “two steps forward one step back” invocation, which could be easily interpreted as a bracket to apply to his two terms and the recent election.

Enter the main theme:

What I want to focus on tonight [is] the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.

The American way, according to Professor O., depends on solidarity, not uniformity. That “basic sense” of commonality underwrites our political arguments so we can reach compromises and assure eventual progress for all. It’s a splendid formulation of progressive pragmatism. Onward to four threats.

The first was “stark” economic inequality. Obama glossed over his record and backtracked on health care, acknowledging flaws in the Affordable Care Act in the face of Republican promises to repeal and replace it as soon as this week. Polls show majorities support just about every key feature of the legislation except the individual mandate and the nickname “Obamacare.” But Obama retreated into a promissory box canyon reminiscent of his red line to Assad regarding the use of chemical weapons.

Anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.

Count on the ex-president being called upon to endorse the GOP plan on the basis of a very quick demonstration of its alleged superiority.

The inequality threat block incongruously included some economic bragging. This cried for infographics on the White House web site to make clear how much the nation has recovered and how uneven it’s been.  

Race constitutes the second threat to the American way of politics. This topic has been Obama’s oratorical strong suit and while he did not excel he did not disappoint. He called for sympathy for the middle-class white guy and followed with this gem, linking threats one and two:

If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard working white middle class and undeserving minorities then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclave. 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.

Iridescent sentences with Obama’s characteristic counterpoint logic, but better on the page than in the ear. The President went on to reject discrimination against Muslim-Americans, to strong applause. He said blacks don’t want special treatment, but equal treatment.

Yes, yes, but what should citizens do? Perhaps comparing Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street with the Tea Party would have been illuminating; Americans pay attention to protest. A shout out to the late John Glenn and the three heroines of “Hidden Figures” also would have been appropriate as an example of multiracial work for the greater good and glory.

Threat three dealt with the media-accentuated tendency of people to close their minds to science, reason, and the views of the other side. This grab bag of cognitive blocks and biases was too abstract. Obama needed to lay a marker down and explain his actions to mitigate climate change. Instead he waded into a discussion of ISIS, terrorism and the fear of change.

Threat four covered the democratic process itself, touching on voting rights, redistricting, and Congressional dysfunction without mentioning his nominees and North Carolina.

He started listing issues, a la Hillary Clinton:

That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights to expand democracy and human rights and women’s rights and LGBT rights. No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression.

And on and on and into pieties about the importance of getting involved. I lost track of which threat we were on amid the pile up of buzzwords and started looking at my watch.

It all changed for the better with a stunning segue.

Maybe you still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off.

(CHEERS)

Let me tell you, you’re not the only ones.

(LAUGHTER)

Michelle...

The crowd exploded with joy. Obama found a rhythm and passion as he paid tribute to her. He did the same for his daughters (Sasha was home studying for an exam.) and Joe Biden, and his staff, and the volunteers and organizers. Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can. A shower of applause from an audience whose presence was finally justified as a living measure of Obama’s greatest accomplishment, the people he had surrounded himself with and inspired to do good.

***

Barack Obama is a polymath and as decent a man as has ever graced the nation and presidency. As my friend Marc Stier has observed, he has shouldered ungodly burdens for being the Jackie Robinson of American government. But he did not fully meet this moment. I look forward to what he will produce in the months and years to come.

President-Elect Trump did not tweet about the Farewell Address. He may have been preoccupied. Note that just as Trump scheduled his June 2015 candidacy announcement speech for the day after Jeb Bush’s, which resulted in a cratering of Bush’s audience share, Trump finally came through with his first press conference in six months and his promise to explain his financial situation on the day after Obama’s swan song. The salacious BuzzFeed publication robbed Obama of audience share as well.

In this case, that may be a good thing.

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